TrueHoop: Lamar Odom

TrueHoop TV: Odom's downward spiral

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
1:53
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Clippers at Memphis: Five things to watch

May, 3, 2013
5/03/13
10:32
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Stephen Dunn/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Clippers will be pushed to the brink without a healthy and effective Blake Griffin.

The void
Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin didn’t practice Thursday and spent a good portion of the day receiving treatment on his right ankle, which he sprained severely Monday, one day before the Clippers’ Game 5 loss in Los Angeles. If Griffin can’t go in Game 6, or is largely ineffective as a post presence on the offensive end, the Clippers have big issues. They’re not a team -- like San Antonio, for instance -- that runs an airtight system fueled by interchangeable parts. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are indispensable to their team’s success, but the Spurs can subsist for long stretches without them because the offensive objectives don’t change with their absences.

The Clippers need Griffin down low, where he draws defenders and forces rotations, and in the pick-and-roll with Chris Paul, which forces the Memphis Grizzlies’ big guys to account for him, Chris Paul and the space around them.

The contingency
How can the Clippers absorb Griffin’s absence? On Thursday, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said that if Griffin isn’t available, veteran multitasker Lamar Odom would start at power forward for the Clippers. Odom’s presence on the floor with the starters would give the Clippers yet another versatile ball handler and a crafty -- if occasionally freelancing -- team defender. But a better bet might be to go small and hand the lion’s share of the minutes at power forward to Matt Barnes. That would enable them to replicate the successful formula of the bench and open up the game. The Grizzlies like chaos, but their very particular controlled brand of chaos, not the outright disorder a small-ball Clippers unit would bring.

This scheme wouldn’t be without serious challenges for the Clippers. They’d probably have to send quick double-teams from the top of the floor to help Barnes on Zach Randolph, something they did fairly effectively in spots during last season’s epic Game 7. And Paul has always preferred a more controlled approach to half-court offense. But the Clippers will need to move this game from paint to the perimeter, and Barnes at the 4 for significant periods certainly would do that.

The juggernaut
Not exactly a label we normally affix to the Grizzlies’ offense, but racking up 114.4 points per 100 possessions against the Clippers in Game 5 definitely clears the bar for locomotive status. The Grizzlies have done a masterful job of moving Marc Gasol and Randolph around the half court, and by doing so, they’ve been able to cross up Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and the bench bigs.

This isn’t stuff we haven’t seen from the Grizzlies before: pin-downs by Gasol for Randolph, or vice versa. Pick-and-roll-and-replace with Mike Conley and both Gasol and Randolph. The Clippers aren’t a bad defensive team (ranked ninth this season in defensive efficiency), but Memphis’ execution on these sets has been crisp, timely and deceptive. As capable as the Clippers are at defending initial actions, if a defense throws multiple-choice questions at them, things have a way of breaking down. That’s what we’ve seen over the past 3½ games from Memphis, and the trend line keeps improving.

The Q
When the Clippers have grasped for answers after the first quarter, they’ve frequently tapped a three-guard lineup composed of Paul, Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford. Not a terrible idea in theory, but Memphis coach Lionel Hollins has countered that combination with Conley, Tony Allen and reserve Quincy Pondexter.

Memphis has been winning this battle. Allen smothers Crawford, who has shot 43.8 percent during the Clippers’ three losses (only 3-for-11 beyond the arc), and many of those attempts have been with a Crawfordian degree of difficulty. Meanwhile, Pondexter’s size and brawn have bothered Paul. The Clippers point guard tallied 35 points in Game 5 but hasn’t distributed the ball (only 14 assists combined over the three losses). Offensively, Pondexter has given the Grizz some needed stretch, which has been just enough to complicate the Clippers’ rotations and give Gasol the room he needs to work. Bledsoe pesters Conley, but the Grizzlies have adjusted, running the offense through Gasol at the elbow or having Tayshaun Prince initiate possessions with Conley off the ball.

Playoff teams need X factors, players who outperform their baseline production. Pondexter has been that difference-maker in this series, and it’s helped Memphis inordinately.

The consequences
For Memphis, closing out the Clippers on Friday night by winning the series’ final four games would be a resounding success after a sometimes tumultuous season. Dealing Rudy Gay created a lightning rod in Memphis and a period of discontent between Hollins and management. Randolph voiced his objections to some of the new wrinkles in the offense introduced after Gay’s departure and struggled after injuring his ankle in March, which was a major cause for concern. More than all that, though, revenge is a dish that’s best served cold (and in Memphis, it’s also served deep-fried with a heavy sauce), and we’ll see a fully catered event in the Grizzlies’ locker room on Friday night if they can close out the series.

On the Clippers’ side, a loss would be devastating. A 56-win team that looked like a serious contender for much of the season and as recently as 10 days ago would return to Los Angeles with some fateful questions: Paul’s free agency, doubts about roster composition, questions about managerial structure, unhappy ownership and Del Negro’s future.

Summers in Los Angeles are generally temperate, but if the Clippers bow out in Round 1, there will be a high-pressure system hanging over the Clippers offices and training facility in Playa Vista, Calif.

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?

Dealing with Chris Paul and Kevin Durant

January, 22, 2013
1/22/13
12:35
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Chris Paul and Kevin DurantNBAE/Getty ImagesDevising a strategy against Chris Paul and Kevin Durant is at the center of any Clips-OKC matchup.
“Like a playoff game in November” is how Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks characterized the Thunder’s 117-111 overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thanksgiving eve.

It was a riveting, but odd game. Chris Paul spent much of the night pinned against the left sideline by Thabo Sefolosha and the Thunder’s troop of big men. As a result, Paul logged one of the worst statistical nights of his career.

Blake Griffin battled foul trouble, which disrupted the Clippers’ rotation, as did the absence of Caron Butler. Both teams had prolific spurts when they scored at will, yet there were lengthy stretches when the game became an offensive slog. And neither team put together many big runs. Yet when it was all over, the Clippers and Thunder had played an instant regular-season classic. On Tuesday night, the two teams will face off again, and the winner will leave Staples Center with the best record in the NBA.

It’s still early and the San Antonio Spurs will have a hand in assembling the Western Conference playoff bracket, but the way the standings have started to settle, a Thunder-Clippers matchup with high stakes is highly likely. The Clippers feel they match up well with the Thunder. They’re 3-2 against the Thunder in the Chris Paul era (three of those five games played in Oklahoma City), and one of those losses came in that overtime game. The Clippers' primary worry about a potential matchup with the Thunder -- no wing to match up with Kevin Durant -- was addressed in the offseason when they signed Matt Barnes. No team in the West truly matches up well with the Thunder -- there are only degrees of desperation trying to guard them -- but Barnes helps, as presumably will Grant Hill who has returned from injury.

A faceoff between the Thunder and Clippers presents each team with a series of tough riddles, starting with how to deal with the opposing superstars. Interestingly, the two teams will employ similar strategies against Paul and Durant respectively, largely because they have similar attributes defensively.

The Thunder locked up Paul in the first meeting, and Sefolosha deserves much of the credit. Paul finished with nine points on 2-for-14 shooting from the field with four turnovers and nine assists. On the Clippers' pick-and-rolls, Sefolosha glued himself to Paul’s right shoulder while Serge Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins forced Paul miles from the paint. When Paul was able to get some middle, he would run into a third defender pretty quickly. As far as shooting over Sefolosha, Paul struggled with that, as well.

The Thunder have improved their team defense this season. They rank sixth in the league overall in efficiency (points surrendered per possession). More important, the Thunder are learning some important truths about themselves. They’re beginning to recognize that they have the length and speed to do some very cool stuff defensively. Ibaka and Russell Westbrook would have to break character to thrive in a strict Tom Thibodeau-style defense, but the Thunder are starting to understand they can still apply some of its main principles. Against the Pauls and Tony Parkers of the league, they can afford to load up the strong side of the floor because guys such as Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook have the length and speed to zone up the weak side while Sefolosha and the other big man are harassing the ball.

As dynamic and crafty as Paul is with the ball, he’s a point guard who thrives most when his big man provides him with a solid screen. That means Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Lamar Odom need to give Sefolosha a harder time, give him the right tackle treatment that will allow Paul to split the defenders and get to the middle with a layer of space around him. You can send a third man at Paul once he clears the two pick-and-roll defenders, but with momentum and control, Paul will find a way to make a play for himself (floater, pull-up jumper, little scoop shot or just draw contact for three freebies).

No doubt Paul will spend some time today thinking about how to adjust his strategy against Sefolosha and the Thunder’s defense, and he's unlikely to go 2-for-14 from the floor again Tuesday.

The Clippers’ defense has seen an even more dramatic improvement than the Thunder's, jumping from 18th to fifth in defensive efficiency. The defense had plenty of flaws last season, but a central one was the absence of anyone on the Clippers who could lock down a bigger wing (Eric Bledsoe can pressure the life out of smaller guards, but, at 6-foot-1, you can’t assign him to Durant).

This season, Barnes wasn’t explicitly brought in for the veteran minimum to be the designated stopper, but it’s a job he can handle more than adequately. Durant scored 35 points in 47 minutes on 7-for-19 shooting from the field. Nineteen of those 35 points came at the line, although Barnes was responsible for only three of the nine fouls committed on Durant.

Barnes did a good job of forcing Durant to his left. A gambler by nature, Barnes roamed very selectively as he devoted careful attention to Durant at all times. Jump shots were contested aggressively. Durant turned the ball over six times, four of which can be credited to Barnes on strips and deflections.

There’s no such thing as a Durant-stopper and likely never will be -- and 35 points is 35 points -- but Durant used a ton of possessions to get there. It will be curious to see how Vinny Del Negro assigns the task of covering Durant, especially with Butler in action, but the Clippers have a very nice option in Barnes, something that wasn’t available to them last season.

How the Thunder contend with Paul and how the Clippers contend with Durant are just two facets of a matchup with an endless number of facets. Both teams will be tempted to go small, as they did in the first meeting, but it’s unclear who has the advantage in that scenario. The Clippers are a paint team defensively, more focused on the rim than the arc. Can they find a balance? The Thunder turn the ball over excessively, something that will kill a team against the Clippers. If Bledsoe is the Clippers' best option on Westbrook, someone else has to surrender minutes.

However these questions get answered and regardless of the new ones that surface, one thing is certain: A playoff series between these two teams would be spectacular.

Killer Lineup: The Clips' tribe called bench

January, 9, 2013
1/09/13
10:53
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Los Angeles Clippers
Eric Bledsoe | Jamal Crawford | Matt Barnes | Ronny Turiaf | Lamar Odom
Minutes Played: 230
Offensive Rating: 102.9 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 87.2 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
Like a 10-cylinder sports car -- not always the most practical vehicle, but an explosive one that can burn up the track at warp speed and is a whole lot of fun.

It didn't take long for Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro to carve out large portions of the second and fourth quarters for this lineup composed entirely of reserves, and it immediately paid dividends. The second unit took on the nickname "A Tribe Called Bench," and it wasn’t long before you could hear “Scenario” during timeouts at Staples Center.

Tribe's overall offensive numbers aren't anything impressive. This unit actually scores 4.6 points fewer per 100 possessions than the Clippers as a whole, and much of that production comes in transition, where the lineup is racking up 27 fast-break points per 48 minutes.

This lineup was built to run. Bledsoe has lethal speed and can ignite an instant break off a live-ball turnover. Long after Crawford retires, we’ll still be talking about his handle, a weapon he uses to shred backpedaling defenders in transition. There isn’t a big man whose skill set is better equipped for the open court than Odom’s. A fast break is a dance number and Barnes understands the choreography and can run the floor as well as anyone in the game. Finally, Turiaf can throw an outlet pass, run and finish.

This group doesn’t excel in the half court, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since structure isn’t something that maximizes the strengths of either Bledsoe or Crawford. Bledsoe marshals a majority of half-court possessions, but a fair number of them originate with -- and terminate at -- Crawford. Regardless of who’s at the controls, most of the sets rely on penetration by either guard, off which Barnes, Odom, Turiaf or the other guard cuts baseline, dives from the weakside perimeter or flashes to the middle of the floor.

Bledsoe has improved considerably as a playmaker, but he’s still not fluent in the art of running an offense. (Apart from Andre Miller, Pablo Prigioni and a handful of others, few NBA backups are.) When Bledsoe has the ball against a set defense, the Clippers might run a double ball-screen for Bledsoe with Odom and Turiaf at the top of the floor, or an angle pick-and-roll with Odom.

Working with Barnes and Odom has been a quality education for Bledsoe, who in his first two seasons at the point rarely scanned the court for opportunities that might be materializing off the ball. Now he knows that Barnes is always reading the floor, finding angles and timing cuts that make him a smart target. Bledsoe has also learned that Odom can do plenty with the ball if Bledsoe can find him off the initial pick.

Crawford prefers to work alone on an island against his defender, and he gets plenty of opportunities to isolate, a role he’s thrived in with the Clippers. One-on-one basketball is a passion of Crawford’s and even though it doesn’t always make for the most efficient brand of offense, it’s hard not to enjoy watching Crawford whittle down defenders to little nubs off the dribble.

Odom has gradually worked his way into shape and can be found nightly in the high post slinging passes to cutters underneath the hoop and working the glass. He has logged the Clippers’ best overall on-off rating over the past 20 games. Barnes plays within himself as an offensive player and Turiaf does work in the trenches.

How it works defensively
The Clippers have jumped from 18th in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to third overall this season -- and this unit is responsible for the largest share of that statistical improvement.

How ruthless is "A Tribe Called Bench"? They surrender only 87.2 points per 100 possessions. As a frame of reference, no other unit among the NBA’s Top 50 most commonly used lineups came in below 90.0. Opponents posted an effective field goal percentage of 41.6 percent (only one other unit in the Top 50 held the opposition below 45 percent), and that doesn’t even account for the fact 20 percent of opponents’ possessions end in turnovers.

The second unit isn’t running a system so much as a fire drill, and it all starts on the ball with Bledsoe, who barrels through or over every high pick. The ball rarely gets to where it wants to go because point guards simply can’t shake Bledsoe’s pressure. A simple entry pass into the high post becomes an adventure because Bledsoe can jump 20 feet in the air standing still. Bledsoe pushes every penetrating point guard toward the sideline, which allows the rest of the defense to tilt the floor.

This isn’t the coordinated encroachment you see in Boston or Chicago, where two backside defenders are explicitly responsible for zoning up the weak side of the floor. What the Clippers’ backups do is more improvisational -- and they can afford to be because rarely do teammates have to bail out Bledsoe after a blow-by, and this freedom gives them the luxury to cause trouble. In addition, Bledsoe's ball pressure means Odom and Turiaf don't have to front so aggressively in the post, which allows them more flexibility to make defensive reads, something both guys do well.

But just because the scheme isn’t scripted doesn’t mean the defense is sloppy. Barnes is careful, and you’ll rarely see him blitz an offensive player without first taking inventory of the floor. Once the ball pressure has disrupted the offense, Barnes will quickly survey the mess and figure out where he needs to go next and move there quickly. When guarding a big man on the weak side, Odom and Turiaf react similarly. Odom has a long leash to roam because the Clippers don’t lose much if he gets caught defending a guard after a blitz or has to cover for Bledsoe, who has decided to jump the passing lane.

What occurs as a result of these impromptu double-teams and relentless pressure is sheer chaos. You can see Bledsoe perform one of his best tricks when a point guard dumps the ball into a teammate at the elbow. As he clears to the weak side of the floor, the guard will then try to rub Bledsoe off the recipient of the pass. Rather than follow his man to the far corner, Bledsoe will instead stop to harass the guy with the ball, going for a strip or simply working with Turiaf or Odom to smother the player into submission.

Even when offenses recover from moments like these, the possession has essentially fallen apart. With the shot clock ticking down, the offense out of position and the defense smelling blood in the water, "A Tribe Called Bench" will double down and tighten the vise.

These guerrilla tactics don’t come without risk -- and it’s not unusual to see an offense whip the ball over a double-team to an open shooter -- but the collective speed, length and instincts of this unit make gambling worthwhile. Elite teams bet on their strengths, and most nights the members "A Tribe Called Bench" are going home winners.

The two L.A.s: A study in contrast

January, 5, 2013
1/05/13
3:24
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant: Respective leaders of two teams whose identities were on full display.

The Lakers and Clippers entered Friday night’s matchup in entirely different moods. Even though the Clippers were coming off back-to-back road losses to Denver and Golden State, the feeling around the team was still rosy as it took the floor. Meanwhile, the Lakers entered the game winners of six of their past eight, but a sub-.500 record meant there was still a long shadow cast over them. The Lakers didn’t seem much closer to answering the hard questions, and the team’s struggles were every bit as stubborn as the Clippers’ success was exciting.

Live basketball has a way of confirming our broad perceptions of the teams on the court, and there was a brief sequence at the end of the third quarter that captured the contrasts with poetic symbolism.

With about 37 seconds left in the quarter, Kobe Bryant got a high screen from Pau Gasol. As DeAndre Jordan stood poised to corral Bryant, Kobe steered laterally across the court, left to right. Lamar Odom didn’t think twice about leaving Jordan Hill to pick up Bryant, who was now being pursued by both Odom and Matt Barnes. Gasol had a layer of space around him in the lane and Hill had sole ownership of the baseline, but Bryant twirled, stepped back and elevated for a fadeaway 20-footer -- which he drained.

The Clippers didn’t blink. Eric Bledsoe collected the ball as it went through the cylinder, inbounded to Chris Paul, who raced up the left sideline against an unsuspecting Lakers’ defense. As Paul steered in his direction, Hill moved away from Jordan to stop the ball, which was precisely what Paul was waiting for. With Jordan all alone on the far side, Paul flung a lob at the rim, which Jordan caught with two hands and slammed home.

Bryant manufactured a tough shot for himself, then six seconds later Paul found an easy shot for someone else. Both shots were successful, but there was absolutely no parallel to the respective processes.

We saw a similar dynamic at work defensively in the game’s final minute, with the Clippers leading 101-97 as the Lakers brought the ball up.

The Lakers got into a set we’ve seen them run a fair amount since Steve Nash returned. Nash dished the ball off to Bryant just beyond half court, then set a screen for Bryant. The Clippers willfully went into a switch, which meant Paul was now responsible for Bryant while Barnes picked up Nash.

The first reaction was skepticism -- wouldn’t you want the taller defender (Barnes) on Bryant, who seemed destined to step back and launch another bomb from distance? But as Gasol stalked to the top of the floor to screen Paul, Odom (Gasol’s man) joined Paul to blitz Bryant. Before long, Bryant was pinned against the time line. After desperately hurling the ball cross-court to Nash, Bryant eventually got it back and heaved a 25-footer, which spun in and out.

On the subsequent possession, the Clippers got into a 1-4 flat scheme, with Paul dribbling the ball alone at the top of the floor opposite Bryant. Griffin eventually arrived to offer Paul a step-up screen, but Paul told him to return low. During that sequence, Griffin had dragged Gasol with him and, had the Lakers wanted to, they could’ve trapped Paul with Bryant and Gasol -- much the way the Clippers forced the ball out of Bryant’s hands on the preceding possession by smothering him with Barnes and Odom.

But the Lakers chose not to. Instead, Paul crossed Bryant over behind his back, bought himself some space in the process, then drained a 20-footer to give the Clippers a six-point lead with 19.9 seconds remaining.

After the game, Mike D’Antoni explained the risk of sending a second defender at Paul in that situation.

“They’ve got some other good guys,” D’Antoni said. “Right in the middle of the floor, [Paul] is really good at finding the right guy, so you could try [double-teaming], but you’ve got one of the best defenders in the NBA on him, and [Paul] makes an unbelievable shot. After he makes it, you go, ‘Oh, Man!’ But you don’t know that he’s going to make that shot. You’ve got to give him credit. But to double the guy right in the middle of the floor is tough -- with him especially, because he passes the ball so well.”

D’Antoni made a legitimate point. There are about a dozen things that can go wrong by sending an additional guy at Paul. Had Gasol remained at the top of the floor, Paul could’ve split the defenders and the Clippers would’ve been playing 5-on-3, something we’ve seen a zillion times before over the course of Paul’s career. He could've made a heroic pass to a cutter or an open shooter.

Sure, there’s risk in doubling Paul at that juncture, but why not deploy some aggressiveness and exhibit some creativity? Why not take a chance by blitzing Paul with Bryant and Gasol, then have either Jodie Meeks or Metta World Peace, who were guarding Caron Butler and Lamar Odom well beyond the arc on the left side, rotate onto Griffin in the paint?

Maybe Paul can successfully sling the ball across his body to Odom in the left corner. And maybe Odom drains a wide-open 3-pointer before a defender can close. Or maybe Odom drives baseline against a hard close and ends up with an easy dunk at the rim.

But you’re a 15-16 team that can’t find itself defensively. Why not err on the side of ingenuity, especially if it means Chris Paul won’t beat you one-on-one, something he’d been doing for the better part of the night?

The Clippers are making those kinds of calculated risks almost every night -- something they didn’t do a lot last season. And that’s why they’re sitting atop the Pacific Division while the Lakers continue to search for answers and lament their lack of youth or footspeed.

These instances aren’t about age. They’re about decision-making.

How the Clippers are doing it with defense

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
10:50
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Chris Paul and Blake Griffin
Harry How/NBAE/Getty Images
The Clippers' once-mediocre defense now ranks among the NBA's best. What happened?

Defense is the NBA’s dark art, the great unknown, a phenomenon whose essence we can’t fully quantify with a simple measuring stick. We think we know good defense when we see it, and we can factor how many points a team surrenders per possession to confirm the eye test. But analyzing defense is still an exercise fraught with assumptions about coverage schemes, who was supposed to do what, and whether the process produced the intended results.

On the results side, we know one thing about the Los Angeles Clippers through 33 games -- only two defenses in the NBA have been better statistically, something not even those most optimistic about the Clippers’ prospects three months ago would’ve put good money on.

Those less bullish on the Clippers prior to the season often cited defense as the most obvious shortcoming. No matter how potent its offense, a team with a league-average defense usually doesn’t finish much higher than third or fourth in a deep conference, and there weren’t a lot of reasons to believe the Clippers’ defense would be much better than that. The Clippers finished 2011-12 with the league’s 18th most efficient defense, and didn’t add anyone to the roster in the offseason who could fairly be characterized as a stopper, 40-year-old Grant Hill the possible exception.

Acquiring solid defenders is probably the surest way to fortify a defense, but there are other means -- the implementation of a smart system and/or significant individual improvement from key players. This isn’t easy because systems need time before they’re perfected, just as younger guys with only a few NBA seasons under their belts need time to refine their instincts. For the Clippers to make a leap, they’d have to craft a more systematic defense that could be mastered quickly, while Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan made significant progress.

By and large, most of those variables have fallen in the Clippers’ favor. Much like their productive offense, the Clippers’ defense isn’t anything fancy. It doesn’t employ any defensive aces who can make life difficult for a decent-sized wing scorer. Griffin has improved a good deal, but can still get into a little trouble when he’s extended beyond the foul line. Same goes for Jordan, who is more disciplined in his movements and precise in his timing, but still hasn’t grasped every nuance.

So how have the Clippers taken a mediocre defense, swapped Randy Foye, Nick Young, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans for Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf and climbed 15 spots in the defensive rankings?

 




The second unit
The Clippers’ starting lineup has been adequate defensively, but much of the statistical improvement has been accumulated while the team’s second unit of Eric Bledsoe, Crawford, Barnes, Turiaf and Odom has been on the floor. In 230 minutes on the floor together, these five give up only 87.2 points per 100 possessions -- that’s tops among the 60 most used lineups in the NBA.

Pressure has been a bedrock principle of the defense this season, and when this unit is in the game, it looks positively Grizzly. Bledsoe is a relentless ball hawk. Consider this for a second: The Clippers' two point guards combine for eight steals per 48 minutes, with Bledsoe and Paul ranking one and two in the NBA in that category. The entire unit has license to trap the ball just about anywhere on the floor. Barnes and Odom make particularly smart reads defensively and know just when to release that pressure to relieve the back side of the defense.

For opposing reserves, it has been a nightmare. Every fifth possession ends in a turnover (the third-best rate among those 60 units that have logged the most minutes in the league), and if a shot does materialize it’s generally contested. All this despite the fact that Bledsoe roves a bit too freely and Crawford has been known to die on a screen away from the ball. Meanwhile, Turiaf is undersized, Barnes a bit foul-prone and Odom still off his fighting weight.

 




Let the big men use their speed
Neither Griffin nor Jordan has the experience of Kevin Garnett, the instincts of Joakim Noah or the presence of Tyson Chandler. But they’re faster than all those guys, and this season Griffin and Jordan have been empowered to unleash that speed more aggressively.

Last season Griffin and Jordan spent much of their time on defense trying to hold their ground in a flat scheme. This year, Vinny Del Negro and assistant coach Bob Ociepka are asking more of Griffin and Jordan -- and they’re getting more. Griffin and Jordan are blitzing selectively (e.g. step-up screens, last third of the shot clock) and are frequently showing high on ball screens to force the ball as far away from the paint as possible. Because they’re finding themselves higher up in the half court than last season, they have farther to travel when it’s time to recover. But that’s OK because both Griffin and Jordan can fly, so long as they know where they’re going, they're more than capable of getting back.

In short, the Clippers have decided this season to double down on their athleticism, even if it means absorbing a few mistakes here and there. Are Griffin and Jordan fluent yet? No, but they’re increasingly proficient and that footspeed affords them a little more time than most big men. They have a coaching staff who trusts them to take aggressive measures to defend, then use that speed to mitigate any potential mistakes.

 




Talk, Talk
Elite teams often characterize the seamlessness of their defense as being “on a string.” A movement by one defender instantaneously triggers another defender to rotate into his place, and so on. The fibers that make up the Clippers’ string are getting stronger, but the cord isn’t completely taut, at least not yet.

In the meantime, the Clippers maintain order by communicating. You can hear Jordan and Griffin confidently calling out screens so that Chris Paul doesn’t plow into an opposing big man. On high ball screens, Jordan has gotten especially good at letting Paul know when he’s dropping back into the paint, so Paul can push the ball handler down the sideline. That’s crucial because Paul can’t let a guy get low unless there’s a plan to cut off the ball.

When Barnes wants to join Bledsoe in pinning a guard along the sideline, he’ll call out to Odom to take momentary responsibility for the man left open. And when Paul finds himself away from the ball on the weakside, he’s constantly barking directions to teammates to close the back door or cut off an obvious pass to the middle.

 




We knew the Clippers would be an efficient offensive unit -- Paul virtually guarantees that. We knew they'd be deep, and would have the flexibility as a team to bang with the brawlers, run with the gazelles, protect the basketball, scramble defenses with Paul's probing, exploit double-teams with Griffin on the block, and wreak havoc with a second unit that can pressure opponents and move the ball.

Yet we had no inkling the Clippers would post these kinds of defensive numbers this deep into the season. We're beyond the point (40 percent of the regular season in the books) at which we can talk about the sustainability of that success. That's not to say there won't be retrograde, early 2012-ish defensive outings like Wednesday night in Oakland when the Warriors shredded the Clippers on the perimeter, in transition, on pick-and-pops for David Lee. We'll learn a lot more about the Clippers on Saturday night when they get another crack at Golden State and make their adjustments.

But if the Clippers have figured out the defensive piece, if they've truly accomplished what elite defenses do -- maximize their individual strengths and mitigate those weaknesses -- and if they continue to post overall offensive and defensive ratings that rank in the NBA's top five overall, it's mathematically impossible to dismiss them as legitimate competition to Oklahoma City, San Antonio and anyone else in the West who stakes a claim.

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.

Lamar Odom goes home

June, 29, 2012
6/29/12
8:47
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Lamar Odom
Jeff Gross/Getty Images Sport
Nine years after departing "basketball hell" in Los Angeles, Lamar Odom checks back in.

Lamar Odom's parting from the Los Angeles Clippers in August 2003 was a no-brainer, both financially and personally.

The Clippers had offered Odom a three-year, $24 million contract, but after losing out on Clippers restricted free agent Elton Brand, Pat Riley swooped in. The Heat laid an offer sheet of six years and $65 million at Odom's feet, and the then-23-year-old curio promptly switched coasts.

For most organizations, losing a talented fourth overall pick after only four seasons would have been devastating, but that wasn't really the case for the Clippers.

Summer 2003 was morning in ClipperLand.

Earlier that offseason, the team had matched $124 million worth of offer sheets for Brand and Corey Maggette, and brought on Mike Dunleavy to be the new coach. The team still had a stable of other promising youngsters age 23 or younger in Quentin Richardson, Chris Wilcox and Keyon Dooling, and had drafted a big man out of Central Michigan named Chris Kaman.

Out of nowhere, the Clippers looked like a serious NBA organization, and, from the perspective of then-general manager Elgin Baylor, Odom wasn't a serious person. Baylor described the rationale behind not matching Miami's offer for Odom as "based on issues of character and other risks involved." Although Dunleavy would have loved the opportunity to move a player of Odom's versatility around the chess board, Odom was the most expendable of the Clippers' young assets.

It didn't start that way for Odom with the Clippers. He displayed ball skills uncommon for a 20-year-old big man and was the first of the team's young stars to ignite some buzz around early-'00s Clippers. Odom posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 16.8 and 18.9 respectively in his first two seasons. In February 2002, he, Brand and Darius Miles posed on the cover of SLAM as the Clippers enjoyed a couple of seasons as one of the league's more likable baby squads. Had League Pass existed 10 years ago, the Clips would have been an attractive candidate to fill out your slate of "Choice" teams, and Odom was a big part of that.

Still, Odom was one of those young players for whom potential soon became a millstone. During his four-year tenure with the Clippers, Odom served two drug suspensions. After two productive seasons out of the gate, his efficiency dropped in his third and fourth seasons with the Clippers (13.7 and 14.6 PER), during which he played a combined 78 games as he battled a series of injuries.

When the Clippers didn't offer Brand, Maggette and Odom hefty extensions during the 2002 offseason, Brand and Maggette might have stewed quietly, but when the ball was tipped that fall, they killed and maimed for coach Alvin Gentry. In contrast, Odom's mood grew morose, and his shot selection was confounding. He loafed on defense and often appeared lost when the ball went into Brand on the left block. The injuries played a factor, but Odom's disengagement was more serious.

When Miami came knocking with the big offer sheet, Odom let it be known publicly that he wanted the Clippers to let him walk. On his way out the door, Odom referred to his time with the Clippers as "basketball hell."

Nine years is a lifetime in the NBA. Since leaving the Clippers as a callow talent brimming with potential, Odom established himself as the game's premier multiskilled big man, won two rings with the Los Angeles Lakers, used his celebrity as an adjunct Kardashian to cross over as a star on the shlock-ertainment circuit, consumed heaping amounts of refined sugar before games and, over time, emerged as one of the more interesting personalities in the league.

Odom was devastated in December when he was included in the post-lockout trade that would have sent him from the Lakers to New Orleans. He was so distraught that, when the deal wasn't consummated, the Lakers felt compelled to send him away to Dallas for nothing rather than deal with the emotional fallout. In Dallas, Odom found another basketball hell, one of his own creation. After a series of incidents, the Mavericks finally told him to take a walk a few weeks before the playoffs. Mark Cuban called it "addition by subtraction."

Thirteen years after the Clippers made him the cornerstone of their future, Odom returns to them for what will effectively be a nine-month stint. He was acquired by the team Friday in a four-way deal that shipped Mo Williams to Utah, the rights to second-round Clippers draft pick Furkan Aldemir to Houston and some cap relief to Dallas.

In both composition and reputation, the organization looks different than it did in the spring of 2003. Odom will join a team, anchored by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, that's instilled a solid culture under Vinny Del Negro. Most of all, after decades of building for an uncertain future, the Clippers' only measure of success in 2012-13 will be present success.

What can Odom do for the Clippers? Running the numbers to project what he will contribute is an exercise in futility. Odom's 12th season in the NBA was statistically his best -- his 13th the worst. Season No. 14 likely will fall somewhere in between, a precarious balancing act between Odom's ingenuity and his temperament.

If Odom can revitalize his interest in the game, he can thrive as the Clippers' first big off the bench. If need be, he can play a handful of minutes at the small forward spot behind Caron Butler and operate as a distributor on a second unit that will need a player or two to keep the ball moving.

Odom can start, sub, pass, slash, score, facilitate and defend -- but we knew all that. In fact, the Clippers were the first to learn about Odom's range of skills. More than a decade later, they hope to finally profit from their original investment.

Tuesday Bullets

March, 6, 2012
3/06/12
4:10
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
  • It's near impossible to stop Chris Paul, but the trend around the league is to use a long, athletic swingman to smother the 6-foot point guard. That tactic has been effective for Golden State and Dallas, which used Dominic McGuire and Shawn Marion, respectively, to slow down Paul and the Clippers. But after reading this excellent post (with a great video of Paul discussing how he attacks taller players), I'm thinking that it takes more than one tall guy with quick feet to shut down CP3.
  • Something new on Jeremy Lin: a stereotype scholar explains how racial stereotypes worked both for and against the Knicks point guard.
  • Unexpected: John Hollinger says the Knicks are playing better defense when DPOY candidate Tyson Chandler sits. Expected: This has a lot to do with Chandler sharing the court with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. (Insider)
  • Brandon Jennings has the foot speed to be a disruptive defender, but coach Scott Skiles would like to see him be a bit more conservative: “The thing that Brandon always has to battle is going for a steal, 'cause he can steal the ball. He had [Lou Williams] all bottled up, six, five left on the shot clock and he went for a steal, Lou went to his right hand and shot a dotted line jump shot. He’s still working on it, he’s just got to battle the urge to gamble when it’s just keep my man in front of me.”
  • Is Chris Bosh better than LeBron James or Dwyane Wade? No. But he may be less dispensable to the Heat's offense. Brian Windhorst reports that Chris Bosh will return to the Heat lineup tonight after missing three games (two of them losses) following the death of his grandmother.
  • The Raptors are fighting hard for new coach Dwane Casey, but it's still important that they lose their fair share of games in order to nab a high lottery pick. So, according to Prospect of Raptors Republic, last night was a perfect game: "The Raptors were outmatched, undermanned, but still somehow managed to put in a scrappy effort and almost won the game, pleasing tank nation while still giving the home fans a reason to show up."
  • D.J. Foster on why the Clippers should be nervous about the postseason:"The best teams in the league force you to pick your poison, but the Clippers don’t really do that — Paul just administers the poison on his own and kills you himself. Eventually though, teams will start doubling Paul as soon as he crosses half court. We’ve seen it before in New Orleans — it’s not that crazy of a thought. They’ll get the ball out of his hands, and if they fail at that, they’ll collapse on him as soon as he moves towards the rim. Defenses will make anyone other than Paul beat them. A good portion of the time Paul will still beat them, but at times it will come down to things like this: Can Blake Griffin hit a mid-range jumper? Can Caron Butler hit the open 3 from the corner? Can Randy Foye make the right decision?
  • Jan Vesely wants in the dunk contest. Anyone whose nickname is "Air Wolf" gets my blessing.
  • Evan Turner's first start of the season didn't go so well. Should he be starting at all?
  • For GQ, Bethlehem Shoals writes that fans give Lamar Odom the benefit of the doubt because he's never been shy about showing an emotional vulnerability that is unusual for professional athletes, but pretty common in most humans.
  • The Charlotte Bobcats are making a legitimate run at being the worst team of all time. Related: Boris Diaw remains hopelessly out of shape, which may mean he's consuming calories equivalent to 200 White Castle burgers a week.
  • Zach Lowe takes on the impossible task of quantifying Rajon Rondo's trade value.
  • Plenty of people want to see Steve Nash get traded to a contender. But moving Robin Lopez might be more beneficial to the Suns.
  • Despite missing Zach Randolph all season, the Grizzlies lurk as a sleeper to once again make a run in the Western Conference playoffs. But to do so, should they make a trade before the deadline?
  • A lot has already happened since the All-Star break. Here's a funny video recap of it all (and some made up stuff, too).

Production down across board for Lakers

February, 22, 2012
2/22/12
12:53
PM ET
By Douglas Clawson
ESPN.com
Archive
(The Dallas Mavericks host the Los Angeles Lakers, Wednesday at 9:30 ET on ESPN)

Last month, the Lakers scored a season-low 73 points, but still managed to beat the Mavericks, 73-70. Although 73 points is low for the Lakers, their offense has struggled all season to score.

Last season, the Lakers averaged 101.5 points on 94 possessions per game. This season, they rank 22nd in the league in scoring (93.3 PPG) even though they are averaging 93 possessions per game.

The Lakers’ 102-90 loss on Sunday against the Phoenix Suns typified their offensive struggles, especially behind the arc. They shot 3-of-18 on 3-point attempts, and for the season the Lakers are shooting 30.1 percent from 3-point range -- down more than 5 percent from last season.

They shot 1-of-16 (6.3 percent) on 3-point attempts in a road loss to the Kings on Dec. 26, and failed to make a 3-pointer on 11 attempts in a road loss at Portland on Jan. 5. It was the first time Los Angeles failed to make a 3-point shot in a game since Nov. 16, 2003 against the Miami Heat.

Derek Fisher and Metta World Peace are posting career-low percentages on 3-point attempts, and Kobe Bryant, Steve Blake and Matt Barnes are shooting below their career marks as well.

Beyond their shooting struggles, the Lakers have not been able to run this season. They have the fewest transition points (330) in the league and average only 10.3 transition points per game. Only 8.6 percent of the Lakers’ plays have come in transition this season, second-fewest in the league behind the Orlando Magic.

Bench production has been another area of concern after the departures of Lamar Odom (14.4 PPG last season) and Shannon Brown (8.8 PPG last season). The Lakers have the fewest bench points in the NBA this season, 21.5 bench points per game, compared with 28.2 last season.

All of the Lakers’ offensive struggles have been magnified in road games where they are 5-11 this season, compared with 14-2 at the Staples Center.

Bosh amazing from '3' when it counts most

January, 6, 2012
1/06/12
2:17
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
Chris Bosh had the magic touch … again.

Bosh may only be a 29 percent 3-point shooter for his career, but there’s something about late-game 3-pointers that suits him well. On a night in which the Heat were without both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Bosh’s game-tying 3-pointer was the biggest shot in the Heat’s eventual triple-overtime win.

Since the start of the 2007 season, Bosh is now 6-for-10 from long range in the last 10 seconds of the 4th quarter/overtime of a tie or one-possession game.

That was one of a few remarkable stats from a remarkable game, in which the Heat outlasted the Atlanta Hawks.

Some of the others from this game included:

• The Hawks were shut out in the third overtime. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this was the first game since the advent of the shot clock in the 1954-1955 season that a team went scoreless in the third overtime of a game or later.

• In 312 minutes last season without both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James on the floor, the Heat were outscored by 27 points. In 90 minutes so far this season, the Heat have outscored opponents by 12, including the seven-point edge in Thursday’s victory.

• The Heat outscored the Hawks by 24 points with Mario Chalmers on the floor. In eight games this season, Chalmers is +109.

Elsewhere in the NBA

Mavericks can’t shoot straight
Lamar Odom
Odom
The Mavericks went 1-19 from 3-point range tonight against the Spurs. That was their worst 3-point shooting in franchise history in a game with more than 10 attempts.

Lamar Odom was once again held to single digits, finishing with 6 points on 3-10 shooting. Despite shooting just 3-for-10, he actually raised his field goal percentage for the season. Last year, Odom scored in double figures in all but one of his first eight games.

Westphal out in Sacramento
Paul Westphal was fired by the Sacramento Kings just seven games into the season.

That's tied for the second-quickest firing since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-1977.

The Kings can only hope to get the same turnaround as the 1977-78 Philadelphia 76ers, who replaced Gene Shue with Billy Cunningham six games into the season, a year after reaching the NBA Finals.

The team went 53-23 the rest of the way and Cunningham led the Sixers to eight straight playoff appearances and the 1983 NBA title.

Doubting Dallas

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
4:57
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
Last year Jason Terry had the audacity to get the Larry O’Brien Trophy etched into bicep.

Last year Tyson Chandler and assistant coach Dwane Casey elevated the Dallas defense to elite levels.

Last year Dallas raced to a blistering 24-5 record before stumbling over Dirk Nowtizki’s twisted knee and limping into the playoffs with a three seed.

Last year the Dallas Mavericks made fools of those who scoffed at the notion of the Mavericks escaping a first round matchup with the feisty and physical Portland Trailblazers.

This year Jason Terry can touch the real life Larry whenever he chooses.

This year Tyson Chandler and Dwane Casey are gone--Chandler for a fat check in the big city and Casey for a long overdue chance to coach his own team.

This year Dallas is 0-2, spanked twice by playoff teams, and faces another hungry foe in the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight.

This year Dallas might not make the playoffs.

---------

NBA Champions often return from the offseason without the sense of urgency and all-consuming drive that took them to the top. Pat Riley called it “the disease of more.” His theory was that after winning a ring, the ultimate team accomplishment, players tend to look inward to their own goals of more playing time, more shots and more money.

It’s always tricky to speculate on the psyche of players thousands of miles away, but even from farflung couches one can see that this Mavericks squad has a severe and perhaps untreatable case of the disease of less--less talent and less belief. With little practice time and a bunch of new players, the Mavericks also have less time to right the ship.

Despite how devotedly Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd bail out the the boat, water will continue to flood the hull.

Riley’s theory is conveniently player-focused. It wasn’t his fault that the players he coached or signed couldn’t muster the requisite competitive zeal. But what is happening in Dallas is a direct result of front office personnel decisions that have almost nothing to do with this season or even last season.

For example Tyson Chandler had the best offensive rating in the NBA during last season’s regular season and playoffs. Simply put: when Chandler was on the court, the Mavericks scored more points per possession than did any other line up on any other team. As you might expect, Dallas’s most consistent defensive lineups also included Chandler.

Was $14.5 million per year over four years too high a price to keep a 29 year old center with 10 years on his injury prone legs? Maybe not, if the goal is to make a great run at winning again this year.

What about Josť Juan Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and Caron Butler--three overpriced (well, not Stevenson) but useful wing players Dallas let walk for nothing. On-court chemistry was an important part of what made Dallas special last year, but keep in mind that the graves of former champions are dug with imprudent signings of replacement value players.

These moves make perfect sense if the off-season goal isn’t to reload for a repeat run at a ring but to scrub your cap sheet in hopes of landing Dwight Howard or Deron Williams in 2012.

That’s probably a wise decision. Williams grew up in Dallas and Howard scribbled the Mavs on his shortlist of places he’d like to play. Nowitzki needs a stud to play with in the twilight of his career, and both would be a fantastic compliment to the sweet-shooting big man. Even if neither ever wear a Maverick uniform, Dallas will still have about $25 mil to bring in better talent next year.

But think about how these decisions must appear to players like Jason Kidd and Lamar Odom.

Kidd is still capable but has spent more time playing against some of the other coaches in the league than he has against the likes of Derrick Rose. He’s old and he’s aware that he doesn’t have many more seasons left. Now he’s toiling in what is in effect a stop-gap season.

Odom went from a perennial contender that always made the big move to put itself in finals contention to a team that is obviously renting him for one season to free up cap space. He’s gone from 6th Man of the Year and rotation player for the league’s best franchise to a player whose primary value is that you don’t have to pay him for more than one year.

Even Nowitzki, he of tireless work ethic, mentioned that his motivation was down following the euphoria of his brilliant playoff run and subsequent slog at the Euros.

In their first two games of the season, the Mavericks’ characteristically sharp passing and incisive offense haven’t just been rusty, but dull.

It’s not possible to quantify spirit, but the their struggles so far are nothing so esoteric as “wanting it.” They just don’t have as many good players and this happened on purpose.

The message that Mark Cuban has been trying to spin is that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was the impetus for him gutting Mavericks roster. He told Dallas radio that “this is 100 percent about the CBA and understanding the impact it will have on the market."

That may be true, and it may very well be the smart play. But the the message to the entire team and coaching staff was “do your best this year, but your immediate success isn’t really our main concern.”

When, rightly or wrongly, the management views the current season as an afterthought, it must be difficult to muster the focus and passion that make last year’s Mavericks so special.

Beckley Mason is the founder of HoopSpeak. You can follow him on Twitter at @BeckleyMason.

Diagnosing the Lakers' defensive problems

December, 27, 2011
12/27/11
1:39
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
The pick-and-roll is one of the most basic and difficult plays to defend in basketball. It’s also an accurate litmus test for how well-coached and well-practiced a defense is. In the NBA, if you can consistently stymie your opponent’s pick-and-roll attack, you can win a ton of games. Case in point: The Lakers are 0-2 in part because their offense is a mess, and in part because they are having real difficulty defending the pick-and-roll.

Thus far this year Los Angeles is surrendering a generous 1.32 points per possession (PPP) to the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll. You might remember Chris Paul and J.J. Barea eviscerating the Laker big men (no thanks to Derek Fisher) in last year’s playoffs, but LA actually defended pick-and-roll ballhandlers well over the course of the 2010-11 season (.74 points per possession allowed). That was not the case Monday night, when Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette and Isaiah Thomas used ball screens to routinely find open jump shots and lanes to the paint.

Defending the pick-and-roll is so tricky because it demands not only the right personnel, but a disciplined scheme. Indeed it takes better timing and orchestration to defend the pick-and-roll than it does to score out of it. Thornton has been shooting pull-up jump shots off of ball screens for a decade. Mike Brown and Pau Gasol just met.

The Lakers are integrating a number of new rotation players and a coach charged with replacing an icon. Growing pains on both sides of the ball are to be expected, especially with a shortened preseason and training camp. But L.A. should take heart knowing that the return of Andrew Bynum should make solving these long-term challenges much simpler.

Players who can protect the rim and also possess the foot speed to show and recover on pick-and-rolls are an incredibly rare and valuable commodity. Kevin Garnett is the master at this maneuver. His fundamentals are flawless: he barks out orders when a screener approaches then shows great lateral quickness to cut off the ballhandler before retreating like a mad man into the paint with his hands high in order to obscure passing angles to secondary options.

The Celtics’ famous defense is built around their big men’s ability to contain the ball on the pick-and-roll, but it takes a special athlete and smart game planning to do that.

The Lakers big men lack that elite quickness, but historically they’ve more than made up for a deficit in speed with a surplus of size. Though departed 6-10 forward Lamar Odom had the requisite quick feet, the real catalyst of the Lakers pick-and-roll defense has been the pairing of Gasol and Bynum. The specific luxury of clogging the lane with an active 7-footer while the other shows on the screen and roll is why the Lakers were an elite defense last season.

The presence of that big man, whether it’s Bynum or Gasol, sinking back into the paint to pick up the roll man allowed the Lakers' other big men to be more aggressive on ball screens. Odom’s absence hurts, but Josh McRoberts is a similar combination of quick feet and long arms. Bynum, on the other hand, is irreplaceable.

Of course it’s not all up to the man defending the screener. That on-ball defender must also help by forcing the offensive player a certain direction and then slithering around the screen to recover to the ballhandler. Fisher is in his 16th NBA season and spends his evenings defending players who hadn’t yet learned what a pick-and-roll was when Fisher entered the league. Though backup point guard Steve Blake is no Tony Allen, he is more suited to harassing opposing point guards than Fisher. Neither is a strong defender, but both are heady and active enough to be adequate when paired with a smart and coherent system.

But the Lakers' defensive system is still very much a work in progress. While the Clippers ran successful Blake Griffin and Chris Paul pick-and-rolls while the other three Clips stood around aimlessly, defending the pick-and-roll always demands the awareness and discipline of five players. And that means it takes practice and conditioning to do it wel l-- two things that are in short supply this early in the season. But Brown is up to the task. In Cleveland he coached a top defensive team that gave up only .81 PPP to pick-and-roll ballhandlers despite Shaquille O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- two of the league’s least reliable away-from-the-basket defenders -- lurching about on defense like enormous zombies for long stretches every game.

Brown needs a chance to ingrain his system, that will take time -- perhaps time the Lakers don’t have given this season's abbreviated practice schedule. But more than anything, L.A. needs Andrew Bynum back. That will happen starting Saturday against the Denver Nuggets. Until the Lakers have control of Brown’s system, they can at least control the paint with sheer size.

Let 'em walk

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
3:38
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
The unknown factors in the Chris Paul trade saga remain a mystery. Smart people are still asking the right questions, but we still don't know what governed the decision to veto a three-way trade between the Hornets, Lakers and Rockets, then sign off on a package from the Clippers.

We don't know to what extent that first deal was agreed upon by front office principals in New Orleans, Houston and Los Angeles. We don't know whether the subsequent rejection of that trade for "basketball reasons" was just that -- a statement about the contents of the package, or whether the league had ulterior motives like throwing a bone to a segment of owners or listening to the wishes of a potential buyer.

What few have asked is why the Hornets felt the dire need to trade Chris Paul in the first place, a question Mavericks owner Mark Cuban addressed over the weekend in an interview with TMZ:
[W]e went through a long lockout, and one of the things we were trying to gain was that small-market teams could have confidence they could keep their star players ... There would be enough financial incentives for them to stay with the incumbent team. And within two weeks of the new collective bargaining agreement, the smallest-market team, which is owned by the NBA, threw up their hands and said, ‘We can’t keep our star player.’ So it’s not about Chris Paul. It’s more about the fact that the NBA kind of gave up on the CBA before giving it a chance. And to me, that made them kind of hypocritical -- or very hypocritical -- which didn’t sit too well with me...

... We had a lockout. What was the purpose of the lockout? One of the goals of the lockout was to have more parity. With free agency, players are always allowed to choose wherever they want to go, but they have to make a decision. Do they want to stay with their existing teams and make the most money, or leave on their own terms to wherever they want to go with cap room and take less money? My personal belief is 90 percent of the time players are going to take the greater money, which meant that Chris Paul could've, would've -- or any star player could've, would've -- wanted to stay in the smaller market. And you’ve got other teams that are making that conscious decision to stick it out like Orlando is doing. But of all the teams not sticking it out, you would think the team owned by the NBA and run by the commissioner would be the first to stick it out, and they weren’t. And to me, it’s hypocritical, and threw a lot of us under the bus.

Cuban argues that a team owned by the NBA should've been faithful to the spirit of a collective bargaining agreement that makes superstars choose between destination and treasure. Had Chris Paul opted out of the final year of his contract with New Orleans and chosen the Lakers, then so be it. Paul would've had to settle for only $75.8 million over four seasons rather than the $100.2 million over five seasons he could've earned only with the Hornets.

Critics of Cuban's argument would say that an unwillingness to trade Paul could mean the Hornets would be stuck with nothing in return.

But is nothing really so bad?

Wasn't the initial proposal -- which would've netted the Hornets Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom and Goran Dragic -- rejected because it would've made the Hornets too competitive? The Hornets would've been consigned to the NBA's middle class, not competitive enough to win anything meaningful, but not bad enough to secure a future superstar with a high draft pick. While treading water, the Hornets would be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars, even if those contracts are of relatively fair value, which they are.

In contrast, the Clippers delivered a likely Top 10 pick, along with an expiring deal for an All-Star center, a prolific young scorer and a forward prospect. Nevermind that the center won't be around next season, the scorer might not want to stick around and the prospect may or may not amount to anything. In fact, for teams in rebuilding mode, success presents serious problems. As Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote last week at HoopSpeak, why pay to be competitive if you can tank for less?
Much of the appeal in this Clippers-Hornets trade is derived from how it makes the Hornets immediately, well, bad ... Obviously, Eric Gordon is a key get, but few observers believe he’ll take New Orleans to next year’s playoffs. And that’s the point. The Hornets will receive a high lottery selection to pair with Minnesota’s 2011 draft pick. A gutted team plus lotto hope makes for a more enticing situation than the playoff contention troika of Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, and Kevin Martin.

By shepherding this particular trade through, the commissioner is tacitly–maybe even overtly–singing a grand, bellowing ode to the glories of tanking. And he is quite correct, because ping pong balls determine so much.

This is why Orlando shouldn't worry too much about getting nothing in return for Howard -- and why New Orleans should flip Eric Gordon as soon as possible, lest he help them win 28 games and finish with the No. 9 or 10 pick.

Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri deserves praise for engineering a strong deal when Carmelo Anthony declared he wanted out of Denver, but pull back for a second and consider what the future looks like for the Nuggets. Those nice assets accumulated in Anthony trade should, along with Nene, sentence the Nuggets to respectability. The team will be fun, likeable and utterly irrelevant on May 25, if not sooner. While the dregs of the league scout all the coveted incoming big men at the top of the draft board, Denver will troll the middle ranks of the first round.

It will be years before we can fairly judge whether the Nuggets would've been better off letting Anthony leave "for nothing," but if your goal is June basketball in Denver at the earliest possible moment, Top 5 picks and swaths of cap space for the foreseeable future might be preferable to Danilo Gallinari and a highly-compensated Nene, who is approaching 30. Nuggets fans won't have to cover their eyes, but they can probably forget about seeing tickets with holograms on them anytime soon.

When we learned last week of a Howard trade proposal that had Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace, Jordan Farmar and a pick to Orlando, the early takeaway was that Orlando was getting the shaft. But the problem for Orlando wasn't that the deal was bad -- it's that it wasn't bad enough! The NBA is governed by a system that reserves its greatest rewards for abject failure, but tells teams striving to put a competitive product on the floor that it's wasting its time.

Think about the Houston Rockets for a second. While they had $40 million of annual salary tied up in two injured superstars, they continued to make wily deals, like offloading Rafer Alston for the Grizzlies' backup point guard, and stealing an Argentinian power forward from the Spurs for Vassilis Spanoulis. Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola have allowed the Rockets to remain competitive on a nightly basis -- and forever relegated to the middle of the first round of the NBA draft, where superstars are a once in a generation occurrence.

What do you do if you're the Rockets or the Hawks and have the talent in place to hang around the 45-win mark for the foreseeable future? Are you deluding yourself in a system with screwy disincentives and maddening inefficiencies? Are you better off conducting a fire sale and putting a sign at the arena gate apologizing for the mess while you remodel?

Mark Cuban is half right-half wrong. If the Hornets and/or the NBA made a mistake by dealing away Chris Paul, it isn't because they betrayed any tacit promise they owed to small-market owners (You want a promise? Get it in the form of a hard cap). It's because they acquired a player who has the potential to win basketball games and cost them lots of money next summer, two things that will work in opposition to getting atop the NBA draft board.

Orlando now finds itself in a similar situation with Howard. The two most desirable outcomes for the Magic are (1) figuring out how to retain Howard for the long term (2) putting themselves in the same position they were when they drafted Howard in 2004 -- 40 games under .500.

Offering him the most years at the most money is the only way to achieve No. 1. "Getting nothing in return for Howard" is the easiest way to get to No. 2.

But trading Howard for productive players is the sure-fire way to thwart both plans.

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