Happy New Year!
Kenny Smith before the season was in a debate about the greatness of the two Los Angeles-based teams and he brought up a player perspective to settle the debate.
“Which team has the two players who will make you lose sleep the night before you play them?” he asked.
Obviously all four — LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Lakers and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George of the Clippers — are nightmares to face. But his point was, the night before you play LeBron and AD, you’re bound to have a lot more anxiety.
You might even argue that the Clippers bench, which is the best in the league with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell as the featured duo, would conjure a sleepless night for many opposing coaches. You may feel good about your starting five and perhaps a solid strategy to contain two stars, with the hope that your bench can win their battle.
But with the Clippers, that’s almost as difficult as matching up with Kawhi and PG. In fact, it may be even more difficult when you consider those two stars have missed a combined 12 games already this season.
What matters most, of course, is what happens in the spring. LeBron and AD got the Lakers off to a fast start at 24-3, which allows them to go into cruise control somewhat through the middle of the season. The Clippers, however, as they “load manage” Kawhi and PG, went 20-7 in their first 27 games and have since stumbled somewhat, which has caused some internal issues.
“We’re not a great team,” Harrell said after an embarrassing home loss to the Grizzlies last weekend. “That’s what we need to realize and wake up.”
Doc Rivers loved that Harrell, and others, spoke out. Player accountability is something a coach loves to see. Of course the Clippers aren’t great yet, but the question is do they have better potential to be great by the time we get to the playoffs?
Do they have greater potential than their Staples Center suitemates?
The answer here is: Yes.
The Lakers have the nightmare duo in LeBron and AD, but those two make up 45% of the Lakers scoring. Isn’t that too top-heavy come playoff time? They don’t have a great deal of depth and will be extremely active before the Feb. 6 trade deadline to fix that issue. Expect them to be in hot pursuit of Andre Iguodala, who is biding his time waiting for the Grizzlies to move him.
The Lakers could wind up using Kyle Kuzma — he, with the trainer who recently ripped LeBron on social media — as bait to land even more depth. Keep an eye on Kevin Love, who is sounding more and more miserable in Cleveland (more on this later).
The Clippers spread the wealth a lot more, with four players — Kawhi, PG, Harrell and Williams — who average over 19 points per game. Their bench is deep and they have a collection of tough, physical players with a roster built for the playoffs.
And they have reported interest in Marcus Morris, who would be a great fit and add more toughness and three-point shooting.
Though the Nuggets and Rockets — who currently sit second and third in the West — expect to have a say in things, there is a prevailing belief that the Lakers and Clippers will be playing for a spot in the NBA Finals.
Oh and what an amazing conference final round that would be. Think about it, not only would you never have to leave the city, you’d also never have to leave the building, for an entire series.
Kevin Love is following the playbook on how to get yourself traded without making a trade demand. It began with a story a few weeks ago about how players in Cleveland were already tuning out first year head coach John Beilien, which several players then refuted. (And many then speculated it was Love who was the source of the story).
He’s talked a lot about trade rumors involving his name as something he’s grown used to and yet there haven’t been any since last year, when he signed his big contract extension. Then over the last few weeks, he has acted out in a way you rarely see from the veteran all-star.
In Toronto, he was seen slamming his hand on a chair on the bench during a timeout when he was taken out of the game. He has had reported outbursts toward GM Koby Altman and during a recently team shoot-around.
And late in the second half on Satuday against the Thunder, Love was in the post with Chris Paul on him and threw his hands up when second-year guard Collin Sexton stood stationary while dribbling the ball. Beilein then yelled at Love to run the play, which called for him to flash to the post and receive the pass. Love stormed to the high post, took the pass and then rifled it at teammate Cedi Osman on the wing.
After the game, Love admitted he was mad about the possession because he had a smaller player on him and the mismatch wasn’t recognized. Beilein after the game took the blame for not seeing the mismatch in Love’s favor.
“I was trying to get us to slow down and try to get, not the last shot, but close to the last shot,” Beilein said. “He had Chris Paul posted up, I didn’t see it. It was on me, I called something else.”
Beilein tried to diffuse the situation, and Love went to social media insisting he loves his teammates, but Love’s actions are clearly intended to get him moved by Feb. 6.
He is 31 years old with three years and $91 million left on his contract, which means you don’t make a move for a player like him unless you feel he can put you over the top in pursuit of a championship. Keep and eye on the Lakers and Trail Blazers as, for now, the most likely to consider making a move on him.
As we close in on the mathematical midpoint (Game 41) of the season, keep in mind we are also in what Pat Riley used to call the “dog days” of the NBA season. It’s the post-holiday blues, where elite teams tend to lose a little of their edge due to nagging injuries and the monotony of the schedule, while bad teams start to realize they’re in a lost cause.
This is where some players dial it back and others are quick to take advantage of it for career-best, record-breaking nights.
And that’s what makes January a crazy month that can produce some of the wildest games and epic individual performances.
Kobe Bryant had his career night in January 2006, with an 81-point performance against the Raptors. That night he hit 28 of 46 field goals, 18 of 20 from the free throw line and even nailed 7 of 13 from three-point range in an era when entire teams were taking only 16 threes a game. It remains the second-highest point total by a single player in NBA history, and still 19 points shy of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100.
January was the month Carmelo Anthony took back the Madison Square Garden scoring title for the Knicks. Melo put up 62 points in a 2014 game against the Charlotte Hornets, which eclipsed Kobe’s 61-point Garden record from 2009 (Feb. 2, for what it’s worth). Melo was on fire that night, as he went 23 for 35 from the field, 6 for 11 from three and a perfect 10 for 10 from the line. He also added 13 rebounds, but the haters will point to the fact that he had zero assists. Hey, if you were that hot, would you pass?
James Harden recorded the NBA’s first 60-point triple-double in January 2018. In a win over the Orlando Magic, Harden put up 60 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in a game the Rockets won by just one point. Not only was this an NBA record, his 60 points was also a franchise record for points in a game. Harden has since scored 61 points in a game twice.
Kevin Durant (remember him?) recorded his career-high 54 point game in January 2014. He did it, coincidentally, against the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder needed every one of KD’s points, as they held off Golden State in a 127-121 win. KD had just five threes in the game and 11 free throws made, but he was an efficient 19 for 28 (67.9%) from the field.
Klay Thompson dropped an NBA-record 37 points in the third quarter of a blowout win over the Sacramento Kings in January 2015. Klay was a perfect 13 for 13 from the field, which included 9 threes. He finished the game with 52 points…in 33 minutes. That third quarter performance was the most points scored in a quarter in NBA history (amazing to think that neither Wilt or Kobe had a record quarter in their epic scoring performances).
So will someone author a January juggernaut performance this year?