1. Will Clippers Go All-In With Deadline Trade?
It finally happened Friday night for the Los Angeles Clippers.
In the 52nd game of what should go down as the first 50-win season in franchise history, Vinny Del Negro had his full complement of players at last.
Everyone was in uniform for the first time all season for the Clips' ESPN-televised trip to Miami.
Which means that Friday's beatdown inflicted by the Heat, with Chris Paul on a minutes restriction, also launched a brief but critical period of evaluation for Clippers decision-makers in the wake of a painful 3-6 slide while their franchise QB's bruised right kneecap healed. With the Feb. 21 trade deadline fast approaching, that L.A. team pretty much no one bothered to talk about until CP3 went down has to take quick stock of how all its primary pieces click and decide how badly it needs to make a move.
The suspicion here, though, is that the Clips already know.
In a win-now season, they look more and more like a team that needs to take a midseason gamble.
The whispers of optimism emanating from Staples Center about how confident the Clippers are that Paul will sign for the long term when free agency hits in July have been rampant for months. And if the Clips' co-tenants can continue to get away with saying they're convinced Dwight Howard will choose to stay, no matter how the Lakers' increasingly nightmarish season continues to be, maybe they have a right to act so sure.
As one source close to the situation put it this week when asked to grade the Clips' chances of retaining CP3, keeping in mind Paul's well-chronicled love of the Hollywood scene and the fact that this team was good enough to reel off 17 wins in a row earlier this season: "I'm saying 99.5 percent."
Yet the surest way to address that pesky half a percentage point -- assuming you buy the above prognosis -- is for the Clips to make a long playoff run that conclusively proves to Paul that he has no need to look elsewhere to satisfy his championship ambitions. A run that takes them, at worst, to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
This is where you ask, with full justification, whether the team many regard as the league's deepest in regular-season terms really has enough playoff know-how and toughness to get there.
The suspicion, again, is that the Clips already know they don't.
Although this is obviously the best Clippers team we've ever seen, their need for a reliable crunch-time frontcourt partner for Blake Griffin along with an extra shooter to loosen things up for Griffin inside are glaring weaknesses that the grind of the postseason is bound to expose. This is especially true in a Western Conference where the Clips can reasonably expect to play Golden State, Denver or maybe even Memphis in Round 1 before having to deal with San Antonio and/or Oklahoma City.
Expect the Clippers, then, to quietly keep searching for trade partners if the Boston Celtics, as it increasingly appears, dial back their willingness to surrender Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett in exchange for a package headlined by CP3 protégé Eric Bledsoe.
As much as the Clippers dread the thought of parting with Bledsoe before they have Paul's signature on a new deal, sources close to the situation acknowledge that the Clips know it's just as dangerous (or maybe even more so) to leave the roster as is and thus expose themselves to an early playoff exit because DeAndre Jordan's offensive limitations or free throw woes (or both) render him a playoff non-factor. Or because Lamar Odom proved too small and ground-bound to close games alongside Griffin when it mattered most.
Word is there's frustration on both sides when it comes to Jordan, with the 24-year-old center unquestionably hungry for more playing time and an expanded role from Del Negro amid presumed skepticism from the coach that he'll ever be able to produce like the third-highest-paid Clipper should.
But trading Jordan for a more finished article, sensible as that sounds, might not be feasible before the trade buzzer in a mere 13 days, since prospective trade partners will surely have all those same questions. Bledsoe is the Clipper other teams covet, with serious consequences risked whether L.A. decides to give in or hold firm.
Do nothing and the Clips would still appear to have enough firepower, as a team that has ranked in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency for much of the season, to stay on course to win their first division title in a 43-season run that began in beautiful Buffalo.
Yet the suspicion, once more, is that everyone in Clipperland surely understands it's going to take more than a Pacific Division banner to take the pressure off Del Negro -- who's in the final year of his contract -- and the organization as a whole when it comes to quenching CP3's title thirst.
2. Western Conference
Much of the latest trade buzz emanating from the West tends to cover what won't happen between now and the Feb. 21 trade deadline as opposed to what will.
• The latest word out of Memphis is that Zach Randolph, irrespective of any whispers in circulation suggesting that the Grizzlies have another big move in them, is going nowhere. The Grizzlies, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, have taken the step of telling Randolph so this week, assuring him to ignore any further trade chatter because they're not entertaining the thought no matter how many calls they get. The Griz don't want to make any more significant moves, sources say, hoping to restore some calm to the locker room in the wake of the Rudy Gay deal that has clearly sent Gay's old teammates -- and especially his former coach -- into a woe-is-me funk.
• Maybe there is enough time before this month's trade deadline for Indiana to find a trade partner willing to gamble on Danny Granger. This much we do know, though: It's not going to be Houston. One source with knowledge of Houston's thinking left little doubt that recent reports portraying the Rockets as a potential suitor for Granger, as they were in the past long before James Harden showed up, are out of date. Houston is not chasing Granger, who is increasingly regarded as expendable in Indy in the wake of Paul George's rise to All-Star status.
• Is the following mere posturing or the real-deal stance in Denver? Only time will tell, but one source plugged into the Nuggets' plans insisted this week that Russian center Timofey Mozgov -- widely presumed to be a lock to be dealt before the deadline -- will not be moved unless the return is "crazy good." Don't know that such an offer is going to materialize for a player behind Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee in George Karl's frontcourt rotation.
Some numbers of note in the West this week:
39: The Spurs -- as they did in 2004-05, 2005-06 and 2010-11 -- have notched 39 wins through 50 games for the fourth time under Gregg Popovich. Only one other coach has pulled that off as many times as Pop: Phil Jackson did so three times with the Bulls and twice with the Lakers.
4: This is also the fourth time in the Popovich/Tim Duncan era that San Antonio had the league's best record through 50 games, as it did in 1998-99 (37-13), 2004-05 (39-11) and 2010-11 (42-8).
12.1: Minnesota's Nikola Pekovic leads the Western Conference with 12.1 points per game in the paint this season, trailing only Miami's LeBron James (13.4) and Brooklyn's Brook Lopez (12.4) in that category. Pekovic also happens to bee the only player leading his team in both total points and rebounds who was born outside the United States. The Suns' Marcin Gortat is the only foreign-born player who held that distinction last season.
11.2: How much will Kobe Bryant & Co. miss Pau Gasol for the next six to eight weeks? During the Lakers' recent 6-1 turnaround, they were outscoring opponents by 11.2 points per 48 minutes with the Spaniard on the floor. Without Gasol in those seven games, L.A. was outscored by 3.2 points per 48 minutes.
3. One-On-One ... To Five
Five questions with Warriors guard Jarrett Jack:
Q: What were your realistic expectations when you were traded to the Warriors?
A: With me, I'm never one to put ceilings on anything, because I think the best part about playing basketball and playing sports in general is the unknown. Who knows what can possibly happen? Nobody knows where you're gonna be at the finish line.
Once I got familiar with the team and [spent time] around the guys, I thought we had a lot of people that were capable -- a very deep team. This is obviously when Brandon Rush was healthy and looking at it from the standpoint that [Andrew Bogut] was going to play opening night, but I knew we had an opportunity to do something special if we could just change that mindset or that stigma that we're just a team that only plays offense.
Q: I have this conversation with scouts all the time: How did the Warriors improve so much defensively and rebounding while Bogut couldn't even play? Can you explain it to me, because it doesn't make a lot of sense to those of us on the outside?
A: When you play good defense, I think it puts you in position to rebound the ball. And I think we've done a tremendous job of buying into that defensive end of floor. The teams that struggle on the glass from my perspective are that teams that gamble, which causes you to over help, and that kind of takes you out of defensive rebounding position and allows the offense to gain that advantage. To be a good defensive team, you have to finish it with a rebound. And that's the thing we've been stressing since day one in camp.
We do it by committee. The one thing that I always harp on, [comparing the] NBA and college, in college we have teammates and in the NBA you have co-workers. But I think there's a difference with this team. I think here we have teammates. And the thing we've been doing is going the extra mile for each other the entire season to cover up for mistakes.
Q: There was so much talk before the All-Star teams were announced about David Lee and Steph Curry and whether they'd both get in. How much were you guys talking about that in the locker room?
A: We were all just hoping for the best. I was hurt by [Curry's snub] because I thought we had put ourselves in position to get two All-Stars, [with] two guys who've been playing tremendous basketball. But I think, with Steph, probably the respect of your peers goes a lot longer way than necessarily being named to an All-Star team. And everybody is obviously respecting what he's done this year and the maturation process of him not just being a scorer but being a playmaker and a leader for us.
Q: What was your view of what happened at the end of the Houston game this week?
A: Whatever Coach [Mark Jackson] says, that's what we're doing, and nobody should have any ifs, ands or buts about it. We were just trying to get the game over with, get out of there, and we're not going to allow any records or precedents to be set on us if we can help it. That's the stance he took on it, and that's the stance [we're] rollin' with. If somebody's doing something to you and you're able to stop it, why wouldn't you? [Intentional fouling] might not have been the most popular decision, but we're not here to win any popularity contests.
Q: What about your chances of winning the Sixth Man Award?
A: Just getting mentioned for an award is gratifying in itself. I think, with me, I'm a little bit different than your typical sixth-man candidate, because usually the guys mentioned with that award are instant-offense kind of guys who come in and straight get buckets, like J.R. [Smith] or Jamal [Crawford]. I'm more of a playmaker who comes in and provides offense, but I make plays as well. A lot of people may look at my numbers and say, well, he's only averaging 13 and 6, but I think if you combine the two together, I'm having a pretty good impact as well.
4. Marc's Quote
"On all of Mike's teams, guys emerge as 3-point shooters that were never considered 3-point shooters before."
Lakers guard Steve Nash, speaking to ESPN.com in November and responding to the many naysayers around the league suggesting that L.A. simply didn't have the shooters needed to provide the necessary spacing to run Mike D'Antoni's offense.
Fast-forwarding nearly three months later, Nash got it half right.
You really can't refer to Earl Clark as a 3-point bomber when he's attempting only one trey per game on average, but Clark has unquestionably emerged in a big way -- as Nash predicted someone would -- to rank as one of the few success stories in Lakerland this season.
How big? Clark logged all of 36 minutes in November and December before, as Nash was turning 39 this week, becoming an indispensable member of D'Antoni's frontcourt rotation.
Yet what makes Clark so unique, in comparison to others who have previously risen to prominence in D'Antoni's world, is that he doesn't sustain himself with the 3 ball like Steve Novak or even defensive ace Raja Bell did. And Clark certainly doesn't play with the ball in his hands a la Raymond Felton or Jeremy Lin.
Clark indeed has an underrated and multifaceted offensive game -- with echoes ofLamar Odom -at-his-best versatility and trusty range when needed -- that enables him to slot in next to Dwight Howard more comfortably than Pau Gasol does. But it's as much Clark's length, athleticism and willingness to play D and scrap on the boards that have allowed him to rise to prominence without warning.
Clark, in short, is keeping the game simple and playing to his strengths. He's making 43 percent of the 3s he does take because he doesn't go hunting for them, wisely choosing to let them fly only when his feet are set.
It's an approach that makes Clark, in his fourth season, one rare source of feel-good for a team that has been churning out seemingly endless amounts of Shaq-and-Kobe-level drama, going all the way back to that 0-8 record in the exhibition season. Surely you heard how TNT's Charles Barkley downgraded the Lakers' chances of rallying into a playoff spot from zero percent to "negative 17" percent in the wake of Gasol's foot injury and looming six-to-eight week absence as a result.
If Chuck is right, no one will be blaming Clark. After coming over with Howard from Orlando for the purposes of satisfying the salary-cap math in the four-team Dwight blockbuster in August, Clark averaged only 5.7 points and 5.0 rebounds in his first 19 appearances in the Lakers' lineup. In the Lakers' recent 6-1 surge before Thursday night's splat in Boston, Clark averaged 12.4 points and 8.9 rebounds, ringing up four double-doubles.
5. Eastern Conference
Some trade items in the East to keep track of in addition to the Carlos Boozer/Andrea Bargnani talks ESPN.com reported Thursday:
• The Sixers, sources say, are open to a shake-up as they continue to wait for the return of Andrew Bynum to give All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday some badly needed help. I'm told Philly, as such, is shopping (or at least making calls to gauge the value of) swingman Evan Turner.
• My ESPN colleague Chris Broussard filed some newsy dispatches Friday, reporting that the Nets and Bobcats have discussed a Kris Humphries-for-Ben Gordon swap while also asserting that the likelihood of Atlanta dealing free-agent-to-be Josh Smith is rising.
It's still a tricky call for the Hawks, given their longstanding reluctance to take on money in a Smith trade and thus squander not only some of this summer's precious salary-cap space but also because they'd be giving up their lead Dwight Howard recruiter. The subsequent scuttle, furthermore, that I heard from one interested team: Atlanta wants a quality young center in return in the event it does decide to part with Smith before the deadline.
• To clarify some tweeting from earlier this week, Milwaukee was indeed shopping center Samuel Dalembert before his 35-point, 12-rebound eruption in just 27 minutes Tuesday night at Denver. The reality, though, is that the Bucks could end up moving any number of players before the Feb. 21 trade deadline, with Beno Udrih -- like Ellis -- also available out of the Bucks' backcourt.
P.S. Dalembert's 35 points were a career high in his 754th regular-season game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no other player in league history has played 600 regular-season games before his first 30-point game. The next-highest total to Dalembert's is the 584 games logged by Fred Roberts before Roberts, also for the Bucks, finally cracked the 30-point plateau on April 2, 1991.
Some numbers of note in the East this week:
13: LeBron James is the 13th-highest-paid player this season at $17.5 million, more than $10 million below Kobe Bryant's 2012-13 salary. Read this excellent Kevin Pelton piece to dig deeper into the matter.
23: Wednesday's Miami/Houston shootout was the first non-overtime game in nearly 23 years to feature three players with at least 30 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. LeBron and Dwyane Wade got there for the Heat; James Harden countered with 36 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists for the Rockets. The last time that happened in a regulation game was March 14, 1990, when the Lakers' Magic Johnson combined with Philadelphia's Charles Barkley and Johnny Dawkins to hit the 30-5-5 benchmarks.
20: New York's Tyson Chandler became the first player to collect exactly 20 rebounds in three straight games since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1970-71. Both Abdul-Jabbar, then with Milwaukee, and Houston's Elvin Hayes pulled that off during the 1970-71 season.
41: The Bulls had won a whopping 41 games in a row when scoring at least 100 points -- tied for the longest such streak in NBA history -- before's Monday's loss at Indiana in a game postponed by heavy snow on the day after Christmas.
10: Cleveland's out-for-the-season Anderson Varejao still has the season's longest run of games with 15 or more rebounds, at 10 in a row, after Houston's Omer Asik was held to 14 boards in Miami after five straight 15-or-better rebound games.
What a difference three years makes. It emerged on New Year's Day in 2010 that an unsavory round of the card game Bourre on the Wizards' team plane led to the guns-in-the-locker room nightmare that changed the course of Gilbert Arenas' career. In February 2013? A press release pops into your inbox inviting you to cover a "Pro Athlete and Celebrity Invitational Bourre Tournament" at All-Star Weekend in Houston, touting Pacers swingman and All-Star debutant Paul George as the host. It was a big week for former Sixers general manager Brad Greenberg. Coaching Maccabi Haifa in Israel since leaving the college ranks, Greenberg and NBA prospect Gal Mekel had Haifa leading mighty Maccabi Tel Aviv with six-plus minutes to go in the fourth quarter of Thursday night's State Cup final before the perennial European powerhouse with the far bigger budget rallied to pull out a 76-68 triumph. Mekel had 28 points on the big stage and remains on course to get his NBA shot in summer league.
6. That's The Ticket
7. Select Club(s)
Kevin Garnett has made it clear, over and over in recent days, that he wants to retire as a Boston Celtic.
Whether he does or not, KG is ultimately going to leave this game in the next few years remembered as an absolute pioneer for what he's achieved jumping straight from high school to the NBA in 1995.
As our good friend Sean Grande noted via Twitter on Thursday night after his radio call of Garnett crossing the 25,000-point threshold, we've never seen anyone like this guy statistically. Put aside all the dramas, hard fouls and occasional turnoffs of KG's win-at-all-costs mentality -- as well as all the recent KG trade speculation -- and let these numbers, courtesy of Grande, sink in: Garnett is the only player ever with at least 25,000 career points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists, 1,500 blocks and 1,500 steals.
Boston's No. 5, furthermore, is officially the 16th member of the NBA's 25,000-point club. It probably won't surprise you to hear that, of the other 15 members, 13 are already in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, with the other two headed there as soon as they're eligible: Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.
All of the above is why, so soon after his heated exchanges with Carmelo Anthony and all the latest talk about Boston potentially asking Garnett to waive his no-trade clause to send him to the Clippers, I can't stop myself from descending straight into nostalgic sap mode and rewinding all the way to the fall of 1995. Something tells me that I've probably told this story before, but I'll never forget covering one of Garnett's first exhibition games in the NBA and seeing Cal State Fullerton's Cedric Ceballos throw one down right over the skinny teenager, prompting Club Ced to wheel away mouthing "not ready, not ready" to the Great Western Forum crowd.
It was the first and last time that I can remember anyone being able to say that about Kevin Garnett.
He was a mere 19 years and 168 days old when he made his official NBA debut on Nov. 3, 1995. Here's one more impressive stat: Garnett is up to third all-time in NBA scoring, some 17 years and change later, when it comes to players who didn't play collegiately.
Here's how that club breaks down:
All-Time Top Scorers Who Didn't Play In College
8. Chatter Box
In his weekly visit with the NBA on ESPN Radio studio show, Marc Stein joins host Marc Kestecher to discuss the latest on the Carlos Boozer/Andrea Bargnani trade talks, Boston's latest leanings leading up to the Feb. 21 trade deadline and all the latest drama in Lakerland.
9. Alternative Listening
Marc Stein drops by the Ben & Skin Show on ESPN Radio in Dallas (103.3 FM) to weigh in on the collective vow this week from Mavericks players not to shave their beards until the 21-28 outfit claws back to .500 ... as well as all the freshest drama in Lakerland that the Big D talk-show hosts can't resist dissecting..
10. Corner 3
Three quick slams and dunks from the deepest recesses of Weekend Dimedom:
1. The slumping Grizzlies have clearly bought into all the external chatter suggesting that new ownership broke up a championship contender by trading away Rudy Gay. That's even though I can't remember anyone (A) picking them to so much as win the West this season or (B) ever describing Memphis as a Superteam before Gay was dealt to Toronto. I'd argue, furthermore, that the stage for a sulky locker room was largely set by Lionel Hollins, who has continually made his displeasure with the trade obvious, which continues to stun me because Hollins is in the final year of his contract and has been publicly lobbying for a contract extension since before Michael Heisley sold the team to Robert Pera. Hard to knock Hollins' unvarnished honesty, I guess, but I tend to think that the Griz might have been able to rally around the idea of integrating Tayshaun Prince and realizing that their ceiling for this season really hasn't changed if their coach could bring himself to do so. That didn't happen until Friday night, before Memphis' home game against Golden State, when Hollins finally announced: "Me, as a leader, has to bring a spirit of work and togetherness."
2. Better without Rajon Rondo? No. Playing harder -- and happier -- without everything revolving around Rondo and his, uh, moods? Hard to argue against the claim that life around the Celtics is simply lighter these days when you see them lock in, win six in a row without the All-Star point guard and move the ball better than they have all season. The Celtics, for the first time in ages, really look like a team. The numbers during the win streak back it up, with Paul Pierce averaging nearly 18 points, 10 boards and six assists in the six straight W's and Jeff Green and Jason Terry shooting lights out.
3. The news that Usain Bolt is playing in the annual Sprint NBA All-Star Celebrity Game immediately turned it into a must-see extravaganza for the 9- and 6-year-old Bolt fanatics residing at Stein Line HQ. Dad has a question, though: Why couldn't Michael Jordan commemorate his forthcoming 50th birthday by joining in? Would love to see if MJ could still score on Bruce Bowen.