NBA Insiders Notebook: Can the Clippers still make a Finals run?

NBA Insiders Notebook: Can the Clippers still make a Finals run?

AN ARENA NEAR YOU -- With the playoffs set to start in about five weeks -- I know, this season has really flown by -- teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack, while others are grasping to stay on pace to get a one of the last slots to the playoffs.

And then there are those in the middle who seem well poised to be among the postseason brethren, but are looking quite wobbly entering this home stretch of play.

In this week’s edition of the CSN Insiders notebook, CSN Bay Area Insider Monte Poole examines the Los Angeles Clippers who not so long ago were seen as a team on the rise that could potentially challenge anyone in the NBA – even the vaunted Golden State Warriors.

But as Poole writes, the path towards basketball success has been a bit more jagged than the Clippers bargained for which has made this franchise’s once-bright future, one filled with uncertainty for the moment and the future when you consider a number of their key players could potentially be suiting up for another franchise next season.

Curtain call soon on Clippers act?
There was a time when the Clippers were great theater. The acting. The lobs. The flopping. More lobs. And, all the while, more than their fair share of victories.

They won 10 of their first 11 games to start the season, beating the San Antonio Spurs in the process. They extended their early success to win 22 of their first 30, beating the Spurs once more for good measure.

Those games seem so long ago when you consider the state of the Clippers right now.

They haven’t been anywhere close to being as dominant, to the point where they’re getting an earful from their fans in L.A. after getting destroyed by the Milwaukee Bucks recently.

“I’m trying to be positive,” J.J. Redick told reporters following a 112-101 loss at Milwaukee that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score might indicate. “I think there has been a series of low points this season. This is probably another one. We were down 30 (actually 31) the other night against Houston, getting booed by our home crowd. That was a low point. We’ve had low points.”

The injury bug bit Blake Griffin in December and Chris Paul in January, and nothing has been the same. The Clippers, once considered a threat to the Warriors and Spurs, are 15-17 since Dec. 22.

And those struggles have the Clippers now looking at the possibility of beginning the playoffs on the road.

Including games played through March 5, the Clippers (37-25) are currently fifth in the West and trail fourth-place Utah (39-24) by 1.5 games. More troubling is the fact that the Clippers might slip even further in the West with Memphis and Oklahoma City just 1.5 and 2.5 games behind them, respectively, in the standings.

The “Lob City” crew has six weeks go pull it together for the playoffs. – by Monte Poole

Western conference

Cuban on Seth Curry: 'He's our kind of guy'
We’re all used to hearing the name ‘Curry’ and immediate associate with an impact player. But we’re not talking about Steph; we’re talk Seth Curry who is doing big things in Dallas right now.

In fact, he is making a strong case to be in the conversation for the league’s Most Improved Player award.

Since the Mavs made him a regular starter, they’re 15-9.

And in that span he has averaged 16.8 points while draining a Curry-like 46.9 percent of his 3’s.

He’s having a great impact on winning which could land the Mavs in the playoffs which can only strengthen the argument for him as the league’s most improved player.

“He's our kind of guy,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban told ESPN.com. “Shoots, plays hard defensively, great in the locker room. We call him Swaggy Swag. High swag level, low volume level. Those kind of guys are good. Swaggy Swag's a keeper." – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Harden reflects on getting past the 'worst year of his life'
James Harden makes 50-point triple-doubles look easy. But beyond the athletic prowess, Harden has struggled with aspects of his life off the court.

Harden opened up to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins in a revealing profile in which he refers to last season the “worst year of his life.”

From an ill-matched pairing with Dwight Howard to an overly publicized relationship, Harden dove into how he got past these distractions and road blocks to find a calm success this season. – by Jessica Camerato

Deng not part of Lakers future
Whatever happened to Luol Deng?

Well, the respected veteran who started at small forward on opening night for the Lakers was last seen on the team’s inactive list.

“He (head coach Luke Walton) wants to play the young guys, so I’m not going to play,” Deng told reporters recently. “So there’s no point of being on the active roster and sit on the bench. He’s got to keep all the guys he’s going to play and evaluate.”

It’s a tale of poor judgment on the part of the Lakers, who last summer pursued the free agent hoping he could provide leadership. The problem is former GM Mitch Kupchak signed Deng to a contract worth $72 million over four years.

Deng left his best basketball in Chicago, where he spent his first nine seasons. In his final two seasons with the Bulls, he led the NBA in minutes played. It shows. He’s appreciably slower and his putting up career-low offensive numbers.

For his physical decline, Deng can blame former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. For his wealth, Deng can credit former Lakers boss Jim Buss and Kupchak.

As for being inactive, well, it’s a new world. Buss and Kupchak are out, and Magic Johnson is running the show. – by Monte Poole

Curry eclipses (another) milestone
As the Warriors were buried in buzz related to Kevin Durant’s knee injury and losing consecutive games for the first time in 23 months, Stephen Curry quietly reached a milestone.

He zoomed past Kobe Bryant on the all-time list of 3-pointers. The Kobe Bryant.

Bryant made 1,827 treys in 1,346 games. Curry made his 1,828th in game No. 555 to move into 11th place on the all-time list.

Bryant put up 5,546 attempts beyond the arc. Curry has launched 4,178.

Because Curry’s feat came in a loss to the Bulls last Thursday night in Chicago, the postgame conversations centered on the challenges facing the post-Durant Warriors and the snapping of their record streak of 146 games without back-to-back losses.

Chew on this: Curry, 28 years old and in his eighth year has moved up nine spots through the first four months of the season. He is sixth on the list among active players, and the five ahead of him are at least 35 years old.

Step aside, Kobe. Make room for Steph. But keep it hush-hush. – by Monte Poole

Spurs, Popovich reach another historic milestone
Because of their consistency, milestones for the San Antonio Spurs are often missed, overlooked or ignored.

But this latest one may be the most impressive of them all.

San Antonio’s recent win over the Minnesota Timberwolves secured them a playoff spot.

That in itself isn’t that big a deal.

But then you realize, it’s the 20th straight season that they have qualified for the playoffs.

They become just one of three franchises ever to reach the postseason 20 or more consecutive years.

San Antonio tied the Utah Jazz (1984-2003) and are now just one behind the Portland Trail Blazers (1983-2003). In addition, Gregg Popovich has led the Spurs to 20 straight postseason appearances which ties the record set by Phil Jackson (1990-2011). – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Blazers' Ezeli out for '17... and '18 as well?
Portland Trail Blazers center Festus Ezeli will remain out for the rest of this season and could potentially be sidelined for the 2017-2018 season as well.

The 6-foot-11 center is scheduled to undergo a surgical procedure on his left knee next week that will involve the use of a cadaver donor, league sources told ESPN.com.

Ezeli’s surgery officially ends any hopes that he would return this season in what would have been the first year of the two-year, $15.2 million contract he signed last summer.

While the recovery time is unknown currently, a source told ESPN.com that the recovery process could take up to a year.

Knee issues have plagued Ezeli even before he arrived in Portland. During his four seasons with the Golden State Warriors, Ezeli had surgical procedures performed on both knees. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Eastern conference 

Boston second-best team in the East?
The record says that the Boston Celtics (40-23) are the next best thing in the East to Cleveland.

But is that really true?

An argument can be made that while the Celtics are playing good basketball, it’s more of a free-for-all in determining who the next best team in the East is.

Boston, along with Washington, Toronto and Atlanta comprise the only teams that have a stake in being number two in the East.

When you go through how those teams have fared against one another this season and Cleveland, the Celtics are at the end of the pack with a 4-8 record although the Celtics certainly helped its cause in their 103-99 win over the Cavs recently. Among the aforementioned teams, Toronto has a 6-6 record followed by the Wizards at 5-6 and the Hawks at 4-5.

For Boston, their best hope of securing that number two spot is to ensure that it doesn’t come down to a tie-breaker. They’ve already lost the season series to Toronto three games to one, and can’t afford to lose any more ground to teams that are fighting to be where they are right now. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Chi-town still has love for D-Rose
Derrick Rose is gone but far from forgotten by Chicago Bulls fans. Newly acquired Anthony Morrow found this out the hard way.

Shortly after being traded to Chicago from Oklahoma City, Morrow was given jersey number one – not knowing at the time that it used to belong to Rose, the former league MVP who now plays for the New York Knicks.

Morrow found out just how beloved Rose still is, with the backlash against him being immediate.

He soon issued an apology to fans via Twitter, and changed his number to 11.

Bulls guard Michael Carter-Williams (he now wears jersey number 7) went through something similar to that when he arrived in the Windy City. And like Morrow, he changed his number as well. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Scola available; so far, no takers
If Luis Scola wanted to compete in the playoffs, it wasn’t going to happen in Brooklyn.

The Nets waived Scola so he could seek out that opportunity. They made the transaction ahead of the March. 1 deadline to sign with another team and be postseason-eligible.

The team believed the veteran “deserved the opportunity to contribute to a playoff contender,” said general manager Sean Marks.

Scola wasn’t seeing much playing time on the Nets, only two games in the month of February. He has appeared in 48 games over four postseasons. – by Jessica Camerato

Bucks add Jones
When the New Orleans Pelicans waived Terrence Jones after trading for DeMarcus Cousins, you figured it was a matter of when – not if – Jones would be picked up.

In came the Milwaukee Bucks, a franchise looking to find some kind of spark to jumpstart their fading hopes of getting to the playoffs this season.

At 6-foot-9, 252 pounds, Jones gives the Bucks some beef up front for a team with a frontcourt that has been long on length but short on bangers around the paint.

Jones is a fifth-year veteran who had solid numbers with the Pelicans, but both he and the franchise knew the addition of Cousins meant his role would be reduced dramatically.

With New Orleans this season, he averaged 11.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.

A free agent this summer, the 25-year-old Jones was a player that the Bucks were going to give some thought to pursuing.

So in picking him up off waivers, they essentially get a test run with a player that they have interest in, without having to commit to long term.  – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Give and Go: What should Sixers be thankful for the most?

USA Today Images

Give and Go: What should Sixers be thankful for the most?

Each week, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Marshall Harris, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producer/reporter Paul Hudrick and NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producer/reporter Matt Haughton.

In this edition, we examine what the Sixers should be thankful for the most on this Thanksgiving.

At first glance, you take a look at Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and remember that they combined for 31 games last season and the impulse is to say health. However, we can’t ignore the injuries that have befallen the team outside of those two engines. The Sixers have been hurting without the likes of Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless, Nik Stauskas and Justin Anderson at their full disposal of late. So health hasn’t been their thing, really.
What the Sixers should be thankful for is that despite being shorthanded, they made it through 17 games of the season with a winning record. That’s in spite of 10 of those games being on the road and two games each against Golden State and Houston already in the books. 

Since a 1-4 start, the Sixers have lost just three times in their last 12 games, and two of those losses were to arguably one of the greatest teams in history in the Warriors. Suddenly everyone is reaching for their abacus or calculator, and they should be. Who had the Sixers with a winning record at Thanksgiving?
Here’s the thing, two weeks ago Jim Lynam told me the Sixers would be a top four seed in the East. I wasn’t ready to embrace that idea. I’m ready to admit my 39-win prediction may not be up to the task. Perhaps we all need to recognize that the Sixers, youth and all, are up to the challenge of not just squeaking into the playoffs. At their current rate of growth, they look like a team that could get the 45 wins they’re already on pace to achieve and maybe even more.

Health is the obvious thing to be most thankful for, but I'll take it a step further. The Sixers should be thankful that the best is yet to come.

Any other season during The Process, Markelle Fultz's situation — being the No. 1 overall pick that the team traded up to acquire that suffered a weird injury that the team appeared to mishandle — would be considered a catastrophe. To say Fultz has become an afterthought would be a stretch, but his situation has certainly taken a backseat to Embiid, Simmons and the Sixers' success.

We won't know the full extent of Fultz's impact and role for quite some time. But the thought of Embiid, Simmons and Fultz on the court together should still tantalize Sixers fans. I'm still dying to see what Fultz can do in pick-and-roll situations with Embiid and even Simmons.

Am I worried about the jumper? Yeah, a little. But this is a guy who took five threes a night in college and shot 41 percent from distance. He then went on to shot 38 percent on five treys a contest during three summer league games. I still believe the shot is there. He just needs to get his confidence back and his shoulder healthy.

And don't listen to the doubters. Markelle Fultz is an excellent basketball player and was the top pick in the draft for a reason. He's not Anthony Bennett or Andrea Bargnani. This kid can play.

And the Sixers should be thankful when looking at his future.

While Embiid already shared what he’s thankful for on this holiday, the Sixers can only look back on how they landed the budding big man and smile.

Let’s rewind a bit. Embiid was well on his way to being the No. 1 overall pick in 2014 as he averaged 11.2 points on an insane 62.6 percent shooting, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game during his lone season at Kansas. That was until he suffered a stress fracture in his back late in the season that sidelined him for the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments.

Even after the back injury, Embiid appeared on his way to locking up the top spot in the draft … until the next setback. This time it was a broken foot suffered just before the draft that cast serious doubt about his long-term health.

As Sixers fans know all too well, that troublesome foot caused Embiid to miss his first two NBA seasons. However, what they’ve witnessed since has been nothing short of spectacular. In just 46 career games, Embiid has averaged 21.0 points (48.2 percent shooting), 8.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.3 blocks. His superstar ability has captured the hearts of the team’s faithful, and his huge social media presence has only made them love him even more.

As for the two players taken before Embiid, their careers don’t exactly appear to be trending in the same direction. No. 1 overall selection and Embiid’s Kansas teammate, Andrew Wiggins, has shown flashes of brilliance. However, his production with the revamped Minnesota Timberwolves is down this season after signing a massive extension of his own and questions remain about whether he can go from being a very good player to great. As for No. 2 pick Jabari Parker, he’s been a stud on the court for the Milwaukee Bucks but is recovering from a second left ACL tear since 2014.

All in all, Embiid is the prize of the crop and fell into the Sixers’ laps. So this Thanksgiving the Sixers should take a moment to reminisce about the process that brought them “The Process.”

Joel Embiid has plenty of reasons to be thankful

USA Today Images

Joel Embiid has plenty of reasons to be thankful

Joel Embiid is very appreciative. He is healthy, signed a mega-contract and has become the face of a franchise on the rise. 

The night before Thanksgiving, following a 20-point win over the Trail Blazers, Embiid reflected on why he is thankful.

“I’m thankful for my family,” Embiid, who grew up in Cameroon, said. “I live by myself, they don’t live here. But my mom is actually here.”

Embiid’s mother took in Wednesday’s action from courtside at the Wells Fargo Center and was all smiles as her son put up 28 points (11 for 19 shooting), 12 rebounds and two blocks in the 101-81 victory (see game recap).

Embiid also recognized the Sixers’ faithful, who have pulled for him during injury after injury and never wavered from their trust in the process.

“I’m thankful for the city of Philadelphia,” Embiid said. “This has become my home and I hope to be here for the rest of my career. I’m just thankful for the fans and just everybody around me, people that have been supporting me.” 

Embiid even gave a shoutout to the media, which doesn’t always happen, especially after a team struggled for so long.

“You guys hype me up so much,” he said. “So thank you.”

And last but not least, the player with 1.02 million followers on Twitter and another 1.4 million on Instagram, Embiid is grateful for every like and retweet. 

“I’m thankful for social media,” he said. 

#Fitting. #Thankful. #HappyThanksgiving