Posts Tagged ‘Matt Barnes’

Clippers rewriting the book on selves

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Clippers rally for 118-107 win in Houston

HOUSTON — The signs and the opportunities were all there.

The night was barely six minutes old when Blake Griffin went to the floor reaching for his back and had to be helped into the locker room by the training staff.

Back spasms.

They hadn’t even played two minutes into the second quarter when Glen “Big Baby” Davis was yanked off the floor by coach Doc Rivers, exchanged a few careless words with the boss and was then escorted to the locker room by security guards.

Lip spasms.

Thirty six seconds later, Houston rookie Isaiah Canaan pulled up to nail a 3-pointer and the hole was 15 points.

This was always the book on how to beat the Clippers. Show them some adversity, get them running their mouths instead of their offense and they’d come unwound like the springs in a cheap watch.

It happened time after time when opposing teams would reach in to push and grab and topple Griffin on one of his rim-rattling sorties to the hoop. It happened when Chris Paul would get caught up in a frenzy and draw technical fouls that didn’t just cost his team points, but let opponents know they were rattling him. It happened after they built a 2-0 lead on the Grizzlies last year in the first round of the playoffs.

Not this time. Not now. Not so much anymore in a season where the Clippers are getting closer, wiser, tougher. Maybe just growing up.

“I think it’s big,” said forward Matt Barnes after a 118-107 comeback win. “I think it’s what we lacked last year. I think it’s a big sign of maturity. It comes from just more experience … I think it’s just a collective effort.

“Last year that was our weakness. We were mentally weak. Collective focus on being mentally tough has got us a long way this year.

“Hats off to our team for putting up with it — the tic-tac fouls and technical fouls and Blake getting beat up. It’s all a tactic by the other team to get us out of our game. So far, I think we’ve done a pretty good job this season to sticking with the course.”

Rivers has brought a much-needed sense of know-how and stability to an organization and a team that won a franchise-record 56 games a year ago, but didn’t really comprehend how to handle or channel the things that make for real success.

The veteran coach and classroom teacher gave another lesson when he didn’t think twice about bouncing Davis from his own lineup, even on a night when Griffin had already been lost.

“Nothing went on with me,” Rivers said. “I thought Baby was just too emotional. For me, if you’re too emotional, I always send you back to the locker room and keep you there till the next game.

“I love Baby. I just didn’t think emotionally he was ready to play tonight. So we told him to go in the locker room.

“I’ve said it about emotional hijacks. If you have one, you’re gonna sit in the back. We’ve talked about that as a group.

“I didn’t make a big deal. I didn’t address it at halftime. It’s not a big deal. We needed him, but he wasn’t here emotionally. So you tell him to go sit.”

While Davis sat and another backup big man Danny Granger was sent back to Los Angeles with a strained hamstring, the Clippers dug deep into the roster for help from Jamal Crawford (also nursing a calf injury), Willie Green, Jared Dudley, Reggie Bullock, Ryan Hollins, even Hedo Turkoglu to close out a 4-0 sweep of the season series over the Rockets and to officially clinch a spot in the playoffs.

The Rockets were playing without the injured Dwight Howard (ankle) and Patrick Beverley (knee), but these are different days, different times, for the Clippers, when making the playoffs is no longer the goal. And if they are going to finally get over that playoff hurdle, this is how they’ll have to do it.

“I look at all that stuff as good stuff for us,” Rivers said. “Blake goes down. Jamal’s going in and out. That stuff’s good for us. We don’t want it. We don’t want any of it.”

They’ll simply live with it and move on.

The Clippers played 19 games when Paul was out with a separated shoulder and not only stayed afloat, but rose. J.J. Redick has missed 44 games and hasn’t played at all since early February due to a bulging disc and they’ve had others step up to hit the outside shots. Crawford’s ongoing leg problems could force Rivers to sit him down the stretch to make sure he’s fully healed and ready for the playoffs. They thought they’d get more of a bump when they signed Granger as a free agent, but that has not happened.

Yet they’ve won eight of their last 10 and — depending on the prognosis on Griffin’s back — seem to have a firm hold on the No. 3 seed in the West. He and DeAndre Jordan are the only two to play in every game this season.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team like this,” Paul said. “I think when guys come to the arena they’re just ready. It’s happened all season long. Nobody’s ever sitting over there not expecting to play. Guys know that their number might be called.

“On a lot of teams, when a guy goes down, guys start looking for excuses and stuff like that. I’ve been on teams like that. But our teams, it’s, ‘all right, we know what to do. You know what your role is.’ “

Experience, wisdom, being disciplined and mentally tougher rather than simply talking tough are steadily becoming valued traits.

Maybe it’s time to think about rewriting that old book on the Clippers.

“I think so,” said Paul. “It’s not just a few of our guys. It’s the whole team. From guys like Willie Green, Matt, Dud, guys coming in, guys like that. We’re playing with a purpose.”


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford talks about Clips’ win, stretch run

Did Pacers suffer from a post-Granger trade hangover?

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down the Pacers’ small forward depth chart

DALLAS — Did the Indiana Pacers suffer from a psychological hangover after trading Danny Granger? It’s not a question that Granger exactly dismissed without some consideration Thursday night.

“It may have,” Granger said after his new team, the Los Angeles Clippers’, rallied to beat the Dallas Mavericks last night. Granger left the game in the fourth quarter with Granger left in the fourth quarter with a strained hamstring.

“You mess up the … it’s not messing, you change the chemistry of the team. It can have different effects that are unforeseen. I think that may have had something to do with it. The fact they added two new players, it’s hard to come in in the middle of the season with a new team regardless of how good you are, that’s very difficult to do.”

Since the Pacers traded 6-foot-9 Granger, a shining light for the franchise through some dark years, beloved by his teammates, the Indy fans and team president Larry Bird all the same, a cold wind had been blowing leading into Wednesday’s critical win over the Miami Heat.

An 11th hour deadline deal on Feb. 20 sent Granger to Philadelphia for Evan Turner, and suddenly a significant piece of the Pacers’ fabric was ripped away. In these weeks since the trade, it’s almost as if the clocks has been striking midnight on a Pacers season with so much invested.

A team that didn’t lose it’s seventh game of the season until Jan. 8, is just 11-7 since dealing the former All-Star. They’ve ranked 26 in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency, allowing 100.3 points per 100 possessions, up from 93.9, No. 1 in the league, prior to the trade.

Granger also noted improving teams in the East making life a bit more difficult. Three of those seven losses came against scrappy Charlotte, New York (which was on a seven-game win streak)and the always-difficult Chicago Bulls. Four losses came against teams in the more rugged Western Conference.

“We took advantage of the fact that the East was awful in the first half of the season,” Granger said of the Pacers’ 17-2 start. “We were just blowing through everybody. But those teams got it going. Brooklyn started playing better, New York, Toronto started playing better, so the East is a little more competitive toward the end of the season.

“They’ve been struggling a little bit, but I think they’ll be fine.”

Granger also believes he’ll be fine after leaving Thursday’s game with a strained left hamstring.

“We did tests and it was strong and everything, just had pain in it,” Granger said, which convinced him it was better not to try to return to the game. “I was walking around on it. I feel optimistic about it. It is [frustrating], but it is what it is.”

Granger’s season with Indiana and Los Angeles as been up and down. The Sixers made the deal in order to dump Turner’s contract and had no intention of holding onto Granger. He was waived and after waivers, signed with the Clippers on Feb. 28. He quickly moved his wife and 20-month-old twins, Jaxson and Jade, from Indy to L.A.

His statistics are nearly identical in backup roles with both teams. In 12 games with the Clippers, he’s averaging 8.0 ppg and 2.3 rpg in just 16.2 mpg, about six fewer minutes than he was getting in Indiana. He’s shooting 42.9 percent overall and 35.3 percent from 3-point range. He’s scored just 11 points in his last three games after scoring in double figures in six of the previous eight.

“He’s been up and down, honestly,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s had some really good games and he’s struggled in a couple as well. I just think he’s getting used to playing every night, he’s trying to get used to our defensive system and the way we play. But overall he’s been good. He’s been a great teammate, that’s the first thing you really want, a guy that just wants to fit in and he’s done all those things, so it’s good.”

The Pacers know all about Granger as a good teammate. But he wasn’t brought him to L.A. to do that and fill its needs on the wing. J.J. Redick has been injured much of the season and his return is uncertain as he mends from a bulging disc in his lower back. Jared Dudley lost his starting job, and largely a rotation spot, with the always emotional Matt Barnes handling the starting duties.

Now the Clippers can only wait on Granger, 30, to get back on the floor after this latest injury issue with his hamstring. He doesn’t think it will be long and says he’s confident he can deliver when it counts, in the playoffs.

“I’m always confident,” Granger said. “I still know what I can do and what I can give as long as I have the opportunity to show it. I definitely feel comfortable.”

CP3 bounces back with 31 to drop Mavs

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Chris Paul’s big night lifts Clips over Mavs

DALLAS – For years, Mavericks fans dreamed of Chris Paul playing for their team. These days, the Los Angeles Clippers All-Star point guard only gives them nightmares.

Remember his 0-for-12 line in Wednesday’s loss at his former stomping ground in New Orleans? Paul sure did. He headed to the American Airlines Center early Thursday with teammates Reggie Bullock and Willie Green to get some shots up. The result: a game-high 31 points on 9-for-18 shooting overall, 4-for-8 from beyond the arc and 9-for-10 from the free-throw line. He added nine assists in the Clippers’ 109-103 come-from-behind victory that pushed Dallas out of the playoff picture, at least temporarily.

Afterward Paul said what no Dallas fan wants to hear.

“I’ve always loved playing here in Dallas to tell you the truth,” he said. “I saw a couple [shots] go through early and had a nice rhythm.”

Paul had nine points, including two big free throws to seal it with 12.6 seconds left, in the fourth quarter. For the third time this season, the Clippers squashed the Mavs with massive late-game momentum swings. After his field-goal-less Wednesday, Paul buried his first two shots of the game, including swishing a 3-pointer.

“Yeah, you knew,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “Well, I didn’t really know it, but once he made that first 3, we were good, and that was good. It was good to see him — he didn’t hesitate at all. He was looking for his shot and running the team at the same time, and that’s what we want him to do every night.”

Paul was not solely motivated by Wednesday’s rare stinker, but by the intense pain he could practically feel all over again in his right shoulder. The last time he played in Dallas on Jan. 3, he crashed to the floor and separated the shoulder. He’d miss the next six weeks. He said he’s still not all the back. The injury, he said, has messed with his shooting mechanics, still aches, has weakened his back beneath his shoulder blade and makes it difficult to sleep without discomfort.

It didn’t keep him from being ornery. In the third quarter, he shoved Shawn Marion and started a skirmish that netted him, Matt Barnes and Marion technical fouls.

In that Jan. 3 game, Paul had 19 points on 5-for-8 shooting and six assists before the injury occurred midway through the third quarter. The Clippers led 77-75 at the time. They won that one with a late surge with, to rub salt in the wound, a 20-point performance from Paul’s backup Darren Collison, who last season had a less-than-memorable one-and-done stint with Dallas.

Less than two weeks later, with Paul in a suit unable to play, Dallas blew a 17-point lead in the final 4:30.

Paul’s bounce-back game sets up a critical matchup Saturday night at Houston. At stake is the No. 3 seed. L.A. currently holds it down. Both teams have 22 losses. The Clippers won for the 51st time and the Rockets got their 49th win Thursday.

“It was big for us,” Paul said of getting the win. “This would have been a tough loss, especially after last night. Going into Houston is a big game, but it feels good to get a win on this trip.”

Building Trust, Clippers Believe They’re Coming Together For Stretch Run


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford leads the Clippers past the Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s taken nearly three-quarters of the season, but it seems the Los Angeles Clippers, through injury and inconsistency and now with trade deadline rumors buried, are forging the most important bond a team can form: Trust.

“This is our team,” Chris Paul said. “If we’re going to win it all this is who we’re going to do it with, so if we can’t get on one another and understand that we have one common goal … that’s what winning teams do, they understand it’s nothing personal.

“Our team, we talk a lot more than we used to in the past, try not to leave anything unsaid. We’re a family and we play like that.”

Paul is strengthening his trust in coach Doc Rivers and in forward Blake Griffin. Griffin’s developing greater trust in Paul and, as in Sunday’s 125-117 road win at the Oklahoma City Thunder that required a push of crunch-time execution to complete the job, the Clippers (38-20) are learning to trust in the system.

Perhaps most crucial to success is the bond between L.A.’s two All-Stars. And while no one wishes injury upon anyone, the separated shoulder that sidelined Paul for five weeks until right before the All-Star break may have served a greater purpose.

Griffin, the evolving, 24-year-old power forward, uncorked a phenomenal stretch, and while he remains well under the radar as an MVP candidate behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James, his all-around performances were central to the Clippers going 12-6 without Paul, the league’s assist leader and almost universally regarded as the top point guard in the game.

“The biggest thing is you see me and Blake’s relationship, we talk all game long,” said Paul, who said he didn’t expect to play against the Thunder because of a badly swollen right thumb, yet accumulated 18 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds and one turnover in 39 minutes. “I think we both realize how much we need each other. When I was out I got a chance to really see his growth and how dominant he is. So me, I’m out there to facilitate and pick my spots, but we’re really starting to get that chemistry at the right time.”

Griffin was the youthful, hopeful face of a downtrodden franchise. Paul arrived as the savior. There have been whispers throughout their now three seasons together about whether they liked one another, whether they could play together and succeed together. Griffin said Paul’s absence helped him grasp his larger importance to the team and to emerge with a stronger voice.

“It’s been important for us as a team to learn to have to play without him because I think at times we relied a little bit too much on him,” Griffin said. “At the end of games you kind of think, ‘OK, we have the ball and it’s in our guy’s hands and we’re just going to kind of let him do his thing. I think we really had to rely on our system.

“And for me, really, taking a different approach as far as being a leader for our team and having a little bit more vocal approach with him out, I think it was good for me.”

The Clippers trusted in the system and stuck with it at both ends after blowing a 15-point lead, 95-80, with 2:14 left in the third quarter and taking only a 99-93 margin into the fourth quarter.

Kevin Durant’s 3-pointer gave him a game-high 42 points (with 10 assists) and put the Thunder ahead 115-112 with 2:43 left in the game.

From there, the Clippers closed it out with a 13-2 run in which Paul, Griffin — who didn’t have his best game, but fought through foul trouble for 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists — and Jamal Crawford (36 points and five 3-pointers) combined for the final flurry.

It was a significant win for a team that only evened its road record at 15-15 and hadn’t beaten a top tier team away from Staples Center since Houston way back in November. The Clippers had already stumbled twice out of the All-Star break while reintegrating Paul — much as the Thunder are doing now with Russell Westbrook — including losing at home to a San Antonio team without Tony Parker and then a couple nights later at nemesis Memphis.

On Sunday afternoon they beat OKC’s fourth-rated defense badly in the first half in transition and throughout the game with a 3-ball that was expected to be prolific for them this season, but hasn’t. Matt Barnes went 6-for-10 from deep, and the Clippers believe when J.J. Redick is ready to return (likely before the playoffs) that they’ll finally be the team they always thought they would be — playing with pace, spreading the floor, rolling to the bucket for dunks and launching 3s for quick, momentum-turning scoring bursts.

“It’s funny [we’ve been] trying to get Matt to run to the corners all year and now he’s doing it, and that’s a good shot for him, we can get it in transition,” Rivers said. “And when he does run there, that’s why D.J. [DeAndre Jordan] gets the dunks because the guards have to make a choice, take D.J. or leave the guy in the corner, and it’s really helped us.”

The question facing the Clippers: Can they build off this singular victory as they head into the final 24 games? Paul said they’ll find out Monday night when they play at New Orleans.

Because through 58 games even Rivers said he’s unsure of the kind of team he’s got on his hands.

“I think we know, but I don’t really know,” Rivers said. “We haven’t had a lot of games together. But nobody really cares about it except for us, so we just have to keep working, and if we do get our group together, the minutes that everyone had I have to think it will help our team overall.”


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford talks about the Clippers’ win in Oklahoma City

Coaching The NBA’s Hardheaded Players


VIDEO: Brent Barry and The Starters crew talk about J.R. Smith’s shoe antics

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – A sucker’s born every minute, or so they say. So maybe the Knicks can find one to dump their stupefying sixth man J.R. Smith upon. More likely, Knicks coach Mike Woodson is stuck with the shoelace bandit.

The NBA nailed Smith with a $50,000 fine Wednesday for “recurring instances of unsportsmanlike conduct.” One day after the league warned Smith after he untied the shoelaces of Mavericks forward Shawn Marion as the two stood side by side awaiting a free throw, he tried it again in the very next game to Pistons forward Greg Monroe.

The New York Daily News reported that Smith has now been fined $105,000 since joining the Knicks in 2012, not to mention his one-game suspension in the playoffs for throwing an elbow at Boston’s Jason Terry, and his five-game suspension to start this season for violating the league’s drug policy. Meanwhile, the Knicks awarded Smith a three-year, $18 million contract during the summer.

A fed-up Woodson on Wednesday lit into his juvenile shooting guard on New York radio station 98.7 ESPN:

“I don’t condone things that I know you shouldn’t do. No, I’m not happy about this. Because again, he was warned, he comes back and he makes the same mistake, and it’s not right. I just got the information, I’m going to address it tomorrow when he comes in here for work, because it’s unacceptable. It really is.

“It’s unprofessional. That’s the only word I can use. Or two words. You just can’t do that. You just cannot do it.”

And …

“There’s no question, he’s done a lot of things this year that has put him in a bad position and our team in a bad position. Somehow, we’ve got to clean that up. This is unacceptable…I keep saying this every time something pops up, but it’s got to stop.”

But really, what can a coach do when dealing with a volatile, hardheaded (but also a needed) player such as Smith? I was talking about this very topic recently with Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who has such a player on his roster in Matt Barnes and just released another in Stephen Jackson.

Barnes is more of a hot-tempered, playground bully/team-bodyguard type whereas Smith is more of a loose cannon and silly prankster. But both are emotional, off-the-cuff players who do inexplicable things at any given moment that can hurt their teams either by drawing a technical foul, an ejection and/or suspension.

Rivers’ answer to what a coach can do to reign in such behavior? Not a lot.

“I just let them explode and then move on,” Rivers said, laughing. “There’s not much you’ve got to do. I had Rasheed [Wallace]. He probably was the test market for any emotional player. Rasheed was a great teammate, he was a great guy, but when he lost it, he lost it, and listen, better coaches than me coached Rasheed. … I came to the conclusion if they couldn’t stop it I’m not going to try.”

Barnes has played in only 19 games this season due to various injuries, but has already been fined two times for $25,000 each for lingering on the court after being ejected. Last month, Barnes put a hard foul on Timberwolves forward Kevin Love in the third quarter, drawing a flagrant 1. The referees reviewed it on replay and upgraded it to a flagrant 2, resulting in automatic ejection. Barnes flipped. The upgrade proved to be more about Barnes’ reputation, a problem in itself. The league reviewed the foul and acknowledged it should have remained a flagrant 1.

“You never want to put your team in a position of vulnerability or giving away extra free throws or extra points, especially down the stretch of the season or if it’s the playoffs; everything has to be calculated,” Barnes told NBA.com last week. “It used to be a good, little game. Now it’s like a flag football-type game, so you really have to be smart about everything.”

His first ejection and subsequent fine came during a November game against the Thunder in which Barnes unnecessarily came to the defense of a teammate and got into an altercation with Thunder forward Serge Ibaka in the first half. Both players got tossed.

“My situation is I look at my teammates as my family, so it’s never really an altercation to me,” Barnes said. “It’s more if your teammates get into something, you get into something; that’s the way I was raised. I was raised to protect my brother and sister and my friends, so I look at my teammates as my family. I’m going to do whatever I can to help.”

How do you coach that?

“With Stephen and Matt, they are emotional and their emotions, for the most part, are in the right place; they want to help their team win,” Rivers said. “Yeah, you don’t want them to ever cross that line where it can hurt your team and when it does, it does, and you remind them of it and you just hope they get better. But that’s all you can do.

“I don’t know, it’s a tough one. I’d rather have it, I guess.”

Woodson and the Knicks aren’t so sure anymore in regard to Smith. The 10-year veteran had an excellent last season, earning Sixth Man of the Year honors, and many professed that he was a changed man, done with frivolous conduct and serious about taking care of business on the basketball court.

Going back to his playoff implosion and the multiple incidents since, that certainly does not appear to be the case. As Woodson said during his Wednesday radio appearance:

“If you look at what happened last year, everybody played a role on that team and J.R. was a big piece of the puzzle. Yeah, it can come from Carmelo [Anthony], it can come from his teammates, it can come from his coaching staff, it can come from me being there, it can come from the GM, the owner. At the end of the day, he’s got to grow up.”

Spurs’ Bench Propelling Hot Start


VIDEO: Spurs bench players Marco Belinelli and Matt Bonner connect for a nice play

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Spurs’ starting lineup was a big part of their defensive improvement last season. It was the best defensive lineup in the league and outscored its opponents by 18.1 points per 100 possessions in its 364 minutes.

This season, that same starting lineup hasn’t been too good It’s been pretty bad offensively (with Tim Duncan shooting less than 40 percent) and has actually been outscored by four points in 99 minutes. Yet the Spurs are 13-1 and rank in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency, because they have the best bench in the league right now.

While the Spurs’ starters have basically broke even, all other San Antonio lineups have outscored their opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions, playing great on both ends of the floor.

Spurs efficiency

Lineup GP MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Starters 10 99 95.8 93.5 92.7 +0.8 -4
Other lineups 14 572 97.2 108.3 92.2 +16.1 +173
Total 14 671 97.0 106.1 92.3 +13.9 +169

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

There are two aspects to having a great bench, and neither have to do with how many points the players off the bench score. You just have to go back to the 2010-11 and 2011-12 Chicago Bulls for an example of a great bench that didn’t score a lot of points. That group built on leads because they were great defensively.

Building on leads (or decreasing deficits) is obviously the most important trait of a good bench. But keeping your starters fresh is also critical (and obviously related to how well you build leads). Through Tuesday, every player on the Spurs is averaging less than 30 minutes a game and the five starters have played just 52 percent of the teams total minutes. You couldn’t ask for a better start to the season from a roster.

No other contender in the Western Conference has had the bench success that the Spurs’ “Foreign Legion” crew has had, but some have done well with their reserve minutes.

Note: Before the season started, six West teams would have been considered as “contenders.” Portland has been added to this group, because they’re off to such a hot start and also because their bench was their primary issue last season.

Efficiency from lineups other than starters

Team GP MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Golden State 15 532 98.3 97.8 97.2 +0.6 -1
Houston 15 665 100.4 106.4 101.5 +4.9 +36
L.A. Clippers 15 448 100.4 107.1 105.9 +1.2 +10
Memphis 14 513 91.8 99.4 104.0 -4.6 -47
Oklahoma City 12 483 99.6 106.0 96.1 +9.9 +81
Portland 15 442 97.1 106.9 101.6 +5.2 +64

Note: This includes lineups with 1-4 starters on the floor. It also includes lineups that started games when regular starters weren’t healthy or before a coach (Kevin McHale) made a lineup change.

Each team is its own case. Some have had their starters healthy for every game, some have not, and one – Houston – has already made a major change to its starting lineup.

Golden State

The Warriors’ starting lineup – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut – has been ridiculously good offensively, scoring 118.8 points per 100 possessions in 192 minutes together. Combine that with solid defensive numbers and they’ve been the league’s best lineup (minimum 75 minutes) thus far.

Bench units (which include lineups that have started games that Curry and Iguodala have missed) have been strong defensively, but weak offensively. When Curry has been off the floor, the Dubs have scored an ugly 87.5 points per 100 possessions.

Breaking even will do when your starting lineup is so good, and the Warriors are in good shape if they’re healthy. But it’s clear that Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry will be missed if injuries keep popping up.

Houston

The Rockets moved Terrence Jones into the starting lineup just seven games ago and have been without James Harden in three games since then, so their optimal starting lineup has played just 69 minutes together and their numbers above include lineups that have started 11 of their 15 games. That set includes lineups with both Dwight Howard and Omer Asik that we know were bad offensively.

So it’s difficult to gather much from these numbers. We do know that the new starting group, with Patrick Beverley and Harden in the backcourt, has been terrific so far. And we do know that the Rockets have been strong defensively – allowing just 95.7 points per 100 possessions – with Asik on the floor without Howard. So that’s a good sign for their bench … at least until Asik gets traded.

L.A. Clippers

As we all expected, the Clippers’ starting lineup has been great, especially offensively. It currently ranks as the fifth best lineup in the league. But the five starters have played over 68 percent of the team’s minutes, the second highest mark among the seven teams we’re looking at here.

Last season, when the Clippers had a great defensive second unit, that number was 51 percent. This season, they’re suffering on both ends of the floor when they go to their bench and though their starters have been solid on defense, they currently rank as a bottom 10 defensive team.

A healthy Matt Barnes will help, but a defensive big off the bench is needed. Lamar Odom was exactly that for them last season and you can understand why the Clips are monitoring his progress as he works his way back into shape.

Memphis

The Grizzlies’ starters weren’t what they were last season, when they outscored their opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions after the Rudy Gay trade. This season, they were just a plus-0.8 in 169 minutes together. But losing Marc Gasol (out indefinitely with a sprained MCL) is obviously a huge blow.

The new starting group (with Kosta Koufos in Gasol’s place) was an encouraging plus-12 in 33 minutes against the Spurs and Rockets. But the impact of Gasol’s injury might be felt most in the bench units, which have been poor already. Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, two guys who are supposed to bring offense off the bench, have shot a combined 32 percent.

Oklahoma City

We thought that, in the wake of Kevin Martin‘s departure, bench production was going to be a problem for the Thunder. But OKC’s bench units have been terrific, ranking second to only the Spurs in terms of NetRtg. The Thunder have outscored their opponents by an amazing 17.7 points per 100 possessions with Reggie Jackson on the floor.

The issue with the Thunder is the starting lineup, which has been outscored by 12.4 points per 100 possessions in its 97 minutes. Of the 27 lineups that have played at least 75 minutes together this season, that ranks 25th, ahead only the original starting lineups of the Kings and Jazz. In those situations, both coaches have already made changes.

Scott Brooks will surely have more patience with his group, which was excellent (plus-12.3 points per 100 possessions) last season. The starting group has basically been bad in three games (minus-31 against the Pistons, Wizards and Nuggets) and OK in three games (plus-7 against the Suns, Mavs and Clippers). And the success of the bench units has far outweighed the starters’ struggles. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on going forward.

Portland

Last season, the Blazers’ “other lineups” got outscored by 5.2 points per 100 possessions. No team suffered more offensively when a particular player stepped off the floor than Portland did when Damian Lillard sat down. So the bench, along with better defense from their center position, was the focus of their summer moves.

So far, so good, as the Blazers’ bench units have basically turned that number around, outscoring their opponents by that same 5.2 points per 100 possessions. They’ve scored a solid 103.5 points per 100 possessions when Lillard has sat, and he doesn’t have to lead the league in minutes this year.

The issue is that those bench units still include a lot of minutes from the starters. Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez account for more than 72 percent of the team’s total minutes. It’s obviously a younger group, but compare that with the 52 percent the Spurs’ starters account for.

Morning Shootaround — Nov. 15


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Nov. 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Rockets’ Asik wants trade | Budinger cleared to return to practice | Challenge ahead for Rivers, Barnes | Duncan struggling early in season

No. 1: Rockets’ Asik seeking trade — Rumors that the Houston Rockets’ starting center of a season ago, Omer Asik, wanted a trade started to bubble up shortly after the Rockets signed Dwight Howard in free agency. Houston, at the time, was in no big hurry to make a deal for him and wanted to see how the big-man combo would work out. Before last night’s game against the New York Knicks, the Rockets big man apparently made his trade desires known again, writes Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, and our own John Schuhmann says pulling the trigger on a trade isn’t a bad idea now:

Rockets coach Kevin McHale started Asik and Howard together for the first eight games of the season, but the two-center combination has not worked (particularly on offense) and had put the Rockets in several first-quarter holes. On Monday against Toronto, McHale finally pulled the plug on the experiment, keeping Asik on the bench to start the second half. Wednesday in Philadelphia, Terrence Jones started in Asik’s place and Asik played just 4:22 in the Rockets’ overtime loss to the Sixers.

Less than 24 hours later, Asik was asking for a trade. And in the Rockets’ crazy 109-106 victory over the Knicks, he didn’t play at all. McHale used Greg Smith as the backup center late in the first quarter, and when Smith injured his knee less than a minute later, McHale played Jones at center.

It was the first DNP of Asik’s career and ended his league-leading streak of 239 consecutive games played. He was not available for comment after the game, having left the Houston locker room well before it was opened to the media. McHale said: ”He told me today he wasn’t feeling good and he didn’t know if he could play,” McHale said after the game. “I asked him, ‘Are you ready to play?’ and he said, ‘I don’t feel good.’ That’s why I went with Greg.”

A few more starts here or there doesn’t change the fact that the Rockets would be better off swapping Asik for a forward who can shoot and defend. While Asik gives Houston depth up front and insurance on Howard (who struggled to score against Andrea Bargnani on Thursday), he’s not worth what the Rockets are paying him as a 12-minute-a-night backup, especially if there are nights like this — if you think McHale’s “wasn’t feeling good” claim was a little dubious — when he doesn’t play at all.

The Rockets, who have had an up-and-down first 10 games, could raise their ceiling and put themselves in the driver’s seat of a wide-open Western Conference if they can trade Asik for a better fit with Howard and James Harden, someone who could play 30 minutes a night instead of 12. And with other Western Conference contenders (like the Clippers, Grizzlies and Thunder) also ripe for a trade, Houston shouldn’t hesitate to pursue the guy they want.

Though they currently rank 23rd in 3-point shooting (at 32.1 percent) and spacing the floor around Harden/Howard pick-and-rolls is critical, their biggest priority in any deal should be perimeter defense. They’ve had plenty of glaring breakdowns already this season and they have no one to defend the likes of Kevin Durant or, if they truly have title aspirations, LeBron James. Exhibit A is Carmelo Anthony‘s 45 points on 17-for-30 shooting on Thursday.

That’s why the Sixers’ Thaddeus Young should be their primary target, whether it be a straight trade with Philadelphia or a three-team deal. The Pelicans’ Ryan Anderson would be a great fit offensively, but would only add to the defensive problems.

***

No. 2: Budinger cleared to resume some hoops activity — Just before the start of training camp, the Minnesota Timberwolves got some bad news — small forward Chase Budinger had suffered swelling in his left knee and needed meniscus surgery. Since then, Budinger has been on the mend and has been cleared to rejoin the team and resume basketball activities, writes Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo!Sports.com:

Six weeks after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, Minnesota forward Chase Budinger has been cleared to resume basketball activities and will rejoin the team Friday, a league source told Yahoo Sports.

It is unclear how soon Budinger, 25, can return to the Timberwolves’ lineup, but doctors are enthusiastic about his progress and expect him to make a complete recovery, a source said.In the past week, Budinger started running on a treadmill and shooting on the court. In rejoining the team, the plan is for Budinger to continue building on his basketball-related rehab process.

The 6-foot-7 Budinger signed a three-year, $16 million contract to return to Minnesota in July.

Budinger had surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee less than a month into the 2012-13 season and played only 23 games.

***

No. 3: Barnes presents a key test for Rivers’ coaching – In case you’ve been living under a rock the last few days, you might have missed the scuffle that ensued during Wednesday night’s Thunder-Clippers game, the resulting ejection of Clippers forward Matt Barnes from the scuffle and his postgame tweets that raised some eyebrows. Barnes was fined $25,000 for his actions and did apologize for what he had done, but now comes a challenge for coach Doc Rivers, writes Bill Platschke of the Los Angeles Times:

The first real test of the Doc Rivers era has appeared, and it can appropriately be described in less than 140 characters.

Can the new Clippers coach practice the same toughness that he preaches?

Less than a month into his first season as the Clippers’ $7-million savior, Rivers must start by repairing his own locker room after one of his players threatened to blow it apart.

On Thursday morning, Barnes publicly apologized for the tweet. Several hours later, the NBA fined him a relatively light $25,000. But the real test will come Friday morning, when the team meets for the first time since the incident and Rivers must figure out how to punish the popular Barnes while strengthening any bonds he has frayed.

“Adversity is good, it always is,” Rivers said Wednesday night. “Accept it, embrace it, enjoy it.”

“The choice of words, obviously, that’s a word that I’m not a fan of in all venues,” Rivers said Wednesday night.

Now Los Angeles will learn the extent of Rivers’ disappointment, which could help define the start of Rivers’ tenure here. Though the NBA’s agreement with the players’ union prevent the Clippers from administering formal punishment beyond the league’s action, there are ways Rivers could make a statement here.

Rivers could cut Barnes’ 19 minutes per game down to single figures for a night, or even leave him on the bench for an entire game. Rivers could order Barnes to make a public statement that puts a remorseful voice and face to his tweets.

The new coach will meet with Barnes and the team Friday, at which point Los Angeles will have a better understanding of Rivers’ renowned definition of toughness.

Barnes, whose hardened on-court persona is diametrically opposed to his kind and thoughtful off-court nature, was actually defying toughness in his tweet. If he really wanted to call out his teammates about their fortitude, shouldn’t he have done it to their faces? And should the context of the racial slur really mitigate the offensiveness of its use?

His Clippers teammates, meanwhile, seemed more upset with the tweet’s implications. They love Barnes’ muscle, but they worry about his head. They respect him as a teammate, but they feel his form of playground aggressiveness is counterproductive in an NBA arena.

“I think, at times, toughness can be mistaken in the form of being ready to fight and stuff like that,” said Chris Paul. “Toughness comes down to basketball. At the end of the day, ain’t nobody in the NBA holding the world championship belt, you know what I mean?”

***

No. 4: Duncan struggling with offense early in season — Lost to many in the course of the Spurs’ win over the Wizards on Wednesday night was that Tim Duncan endured the worst shooting night (1-for-12) of his illustrious career. Overall, Duncan has gotten off to a slow start on offense this season, but as Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News points out, Duncan started slow last season, too, and ended up as an All-NBA First Team selection:

Tim Duncan’s nightmarish shooting night on Wednesday against the Wizards (1 for 12, the worst showing of his illustrious career), or the fact that he’s currently shooting just 38.6 percent through seven games should be cause for significant alarm.

It’s ridiculously early, and the Spurs are still 8-1. (Incidentally, their lone defeat coincided with Duncan’s best game, 24 points on 12-for-23 shooting against Portland.)

No longer the low-post force he once was, Duncan’s perimeter-oriented styles makes him increasingly vulnerable to swoons. Last season he endured the following slumps:

31.7 percent, three games
39.5 percent, three games
40.5 percent, six games
41.0 percent, six games (playoffs)
39.7 percent, four games (playoffs)

Duncan ended up shooting 50.2 percent for the year, and 47 percent during the playoffs while becoming one of the oldest players in league history to earn All-NBA honors.

So, just in case the point isn’t sinking in, we’ll spell it out: With almost 90 percent of the regular season yet to be played, there’s absolutely no reason to panic.

Yet.

The good news for Duncan: He’s generally getting quality looks. Indeed, he’s taking a higher percentage of shots at the rim (42.2) than he has since 2007-08.

Now, the unsettling part: He’s converting just 54.3 percent of those shots, roughly 10 points below last season’s league average and almost nine points below his lowest mark in seven seasons tracked by Hoops Data.

But wait, there’s more!

According to  NBA.com’s new SportVU player tracking data, Duncan ranks:

* 23rd out of 25 players averaging at least five catch-and-shoot attempts per game at 27.8 percent
* 71st out of 72 players averaging at least two close-range points per game at 35.3 percent

Again, at a point of the season where one performance can still skew the statistics, it’s completely reasonable to expect Duncan will bounce back at some point. His teammates think it’s only a matter of time.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Wizards assistant (and ex-Rockets, Nets and Timberwolves star) Sam Cassell has no problem with players doing his trademark dance … Interesting read from the Miami Herald on the origins of Shane Battier‘s last name

ICYMI Of The Night: If you somehow missed the exciting finish to the Thunder-Warriors game, we’ve got it right here for ya …


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook and Andre Iguodala trade hero moments

Clips’ Hopes Of Contending Depends On Defense Of Jordan, Griffin

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HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Los Angeles Clippers, a team that won 17 straight games and finished with the league’s fifth-best record last season, made some upgrades this summer in an effort to turn themselves into true title contenders.

On the bench, Vinny Del Negro was replaced by Doc Rivers. And in the starting lineup, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler were replaced by J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley.

But if the Clippers are to compete for a championship this season, they will need improvement from within, specifically with starting big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, who will need to make up for some lost defense on the bench.

L.A.’s bench delivered

One thing that gets overlooked in the Clippers’ rehaul is that they had an excellent second unit last season. Their starters were terrific, but they suffered little drop-off when they went to their bench.

Clippers efficiency, 2012-13

Lineups MIN Pace OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
*Starting lineups 982 91.9 112.8 103.4 +9.5 +181
Other lineups 2,960 94.2 106.0 100.2 +5.8 +348
Total 3,942 93.7 107.7 101.0 +6.7 +529

* Paul, Butler, Griffin, Jordan and either Billups or Green
Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

The Clippers’ starting unit was ridiculously good offensively, but slightly below average defensively. And though their bench struggled to score (it basically depended on Jamal Crawford‘s one-on-one ability), it still built on leads because it was so good on D.

In general, bench units are going to be better defensively than starting units because they’re going against other reserves. But the Clippers’ second most used lineup in the regular season, comprised of all reserves, was the third-best defensive unit in the league (minimum of 200 minutes played).

Three members of that unit are gone. Eric Bledsoe is in Phoenix, Ronny Turiaf is in Minnesota, and Lamar Odom is in NBA limbo as he deals with whatever off-court issues he has.

The importance of Odom

Here’s the thing about Odom last season. He was a disaster offensively (and was the season before that), but was a big part of the Clippers’ defensive improvement. L.A. went from 20th in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to ninth last season. Their bench — particularly the big men — provided the strongest D.

In 821 minutes with Odom on the floor with either Turiaf or Ryan Hollins, the Clips allowed less than 91 points per 100 possessions. That’s elite defense no matter who the opponent is. No two-man combination in the league that played at least 450 minutes together had a lower on-court DefRtg than Odom and Turiaf.

On-court efficiency, Clippers big man combinations (min. 100 minutes)

Combination GP MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Griffin + Jordan 80 1,810 112.5 104.2 +8.3 +291
Griffin + Odom 66 502 105.7 97.9 +7.8 +114
Odom + Turiaf 53 479 100.0 91.0 +9.0 +56
Odom + Hollins 41 343 111.4 90.8 +20.6 +118
Odom + Jordan 34 166 99.3 104.6 -5.3 -16
Turiaf + Hollins 32 148 85.6 104.7 -19.1 -45
Griffin + Hollins 26 133 106.1 111.5 -5.4 -13

Why Jordan, Griffin must improve

The Clippers’ starting lineup — with Willie Green at the two — was one of the best offensive lineups in the league. Although Jordan can’t shoot at all and Griffin’s mid-range jumper still needs work, that unit scored at a rate better than the Heat’s No. 1 offense. No lineup that was on the floor for nearly as much time scored as efficiently, and great offense can make up for mediocre defense, especially in the regular season.

But there are reasons why Griffin and Jordan need to get better defensively …

1. In the postseason, it’s better to be a great defensive team than a great offensive team. Over the last 12 seasons, 23 of the 24 teams that have reached The Finals have ranked in the top 10 defensively and 15 of the 24 have ranked in the top five defensively. Only 17 of the 24 have ranked in the top 10 offensively and only eight of the 24 have ranked in the top five offensively.

2. Odom and Turiaf have been replaced by Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens, two defensive liabilities (to put it lightly). The Clips’ bench won’t be nearly as good defensively as it was last season. If L.A. wants to remain in the top 10 on that end of the floor, the starters must make up for the drop-off.

3. The Clippers were just awful defensively in the playoffs, allowing the Grizzlies — who ranked 18th offensively in the regular season — to score almost 110 points per 100 possessions over six games. The only team that was worse defensively last postseason was the short-handed Lakers, who got trounced by San Antonio.

How Memphis exposed L.A.’s bigs

The problems in that series started with the Clippers’ inability to force turnovers and continued with their inability to keep the Grizzlies off the foul line.

Clippers defense, 2012-13

Season Opp2PT% Rank Opp3PT% Rank DREB% Rank OppTOV% Rank OppFTA Rate Rank
Reg. sea. 46.8% 6 37.3% 26 73.5% 15 17.2% 1 .306 29
Playoffs 48.5% 9 32.5% 5 73.3% 12 11.3% 15 .451 16

DREB% = Percentage of defensive rebounds obtained
OppTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions
OppFTA Rate = Opponent FTA/FGA

Though it was a slow-paced series, the Grizzlies — a team not known for getting to the line — attempted over 34 free throws per game, 13 more than they averaged in the regular season. They shot better than 50 percent from the field in two of their wins, but 38 trips to the line in allowed them to be nearly as efficient in Game 3, when they shot just 39 percent.

All five L.A. bigs averaged at least six fouls per 48 minutes in the series, with Hollins and Turiaf totaling an incredible 24 fouls in just 96 minutes. Griffin fouled out of Game 1 and committed five fouls in Game 3. Jordan had three fouls in just 17 minutes in that same Game 3.

The combination of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is a tough matchup for any frontline. But the Clipper bigs got worked over, especially in the post …



Where Jordan and Griffin can improve

Griffin and Jordan aren’t terrible defenders. They both rank as “very good” on pick-and-rolls, according to Synergy Sports Technology. And when it came to rotations and team defense, Butler was a bigger liability in that starting lineup. L.A. was better defensively with Barnes at small forward with the other starters.

But the bigs aren’t great and their defensive focus and energy comes and goes. When guarding a big who faces up in the post, they often fail to contest his jumper or bite on his pump fake. And though they might contain an initial pick-and-roll, they don’t necessarily bring the second and third efforts needed against an offense that knows how to execute …


Both Odom and Turiaf ranked higher on pick-and-roll D and on post defense, where Griffin and Jordan rated as just “good” by Synergy in the regular season … and “poor” in the playoffs. The Grizzlies scored 69 points on 61 post-ups against the pair over the six games.

Overall, the Griffin-Jordan combo just didn’t measure up defensively to the big man pairings on other Western Conference contenders …

On-court efficiency, starting bigs, West playoff teams

Combination (Team) GP MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Duncan + Splitter (SAS) 60 819 106.0 92.7 +13.3 +208
Randolph + Gasol (MEM) 74 1,923 102.6 95.5 +7.1 +322
Ibaka + Perkins (OKC) 76 1,721 109.8 98.0 +11.8 +349
Faried + Koufos (DEN) 79 1,235 106.7 101.9 +4.8 +126
Bogut + Lee (GSW) 31 720 106.7 103.0 +3.7 +50
Griffin + Jordan (LAC) 80 1,810 112.5 104.2 +8.3 +291
Gasol + Howard (LAL) 46 994 103.5 104.2 -0.7 -19
Patterson + Asik (HOU) 46 797 108.3 104.8 +3.6 +78

The Clippers will again be competing with the Spurs, Thunder and Grizzlies, three teams with bigs they can count on defensively. The Rockets have (a healthier) Dwight Howard and the Warriors could have a healthy Andrew Bogut.

Rivers was the coach of the league’s best defensive team of the last six seasons, and this team will likely be the best offensive one he’s ever led. But he’s not bringing Kevin Garnett with him from Boston.

The tools are there for Griffin and Jordan to improve. They have as much athleticism and mobility as any frontline in the league. But it takes a lot more than that to be an elite defender.

Jordan spoke about being a better communicator earlier this summer, and that’s a step in the right direction. But discipline, focus and sustained effort must also be priorities.

The Clips don’t need either guy to turn into Garnett. But if they’re to be included as one of the West teams that could be in The Finals next June, their starting bigs need to go from good to great defensively … especially since they won’t have as much help from their back-ups.

Bench Mobs: Four That Got Better

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Every general manager’s goal is to assembly an energetic, productive bench.

A strong second unit filled with single-minded role players enhances a team’s chances at winning. Just look at the two-time champion Miami Heat and perennially contending San Antonio Spurs: both clubs received significant bench contributions throughout the 2012-13 season. Still, a deep and talented bench does not ensure success — the Los Angeles Clippers being Exhibit A.

Arguably the NBA’s deepest bench last season, L.A.’s reserves ranked fourth in scoring and second in overall production (points, assists and rebounds combined). The second unit of Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf ranked as the third-best defensive unit in the league. Yet the Clippers lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies, whose thin bench was considered a major weakness.

The goal is to build a well-rounded and deep roster that doesn’t falter when the starters sit, that can change pace when needed and can light it up just as well as lock it down.

Four teams looking to make a charge in their respective conferences — including the all-in Clippers and the go-getter Golden State Warriors in the West; and in the East the rugged-but-reinforcement-thin Indiana Pacers and the money-is-nothing Brooklyn Nets — completed significant offseason signings and trades that should bolster each club’s depth:

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

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Loses: G Bledsoe, G Chauncey Billups, F Odom (still available), F Grant Hill (retired), F/C Turiaf

Additions: G J.J. Redick, G/F Jared Dudley, G Darren Collison, F Reggie Bullock (draft pick)

Why they’re better: Only two members of the aforementioned third-ranked defensive unit, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, are returning as of today (Odom remains a possibility) to the Clippers’ second unit, so they could slip defensively. But the firepower is all-world with Redick (a 39 percent career 3-point shooter) and Dudley (40.5 percent) joining Sixth Man runner-up Crawford (35.0 percent). Collison has plenty to prove after twice losing his starting job in Dallas to late-30-somethings Derek Fisher and Mike James. The ultra-quick Collison backed up Chris Paul as a rookie in New Orleans and he now has a defined role that should suit his game. Plenty of experience and savvy leaves town in Hill and Billups, but they played a combined 51 games last season. Hill was not part of the playoff rotation until former coach Vinny Del Negro got desperate late in the first-round series loss. New coach and senior vice president of basketball operations Doc Rivers has given himself plenty of options with a bench unit that might top last season’s group. Free agents Barnes, center Ryan Hollins and guard Willie Green return.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

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Loses: Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry

Additions: Marreese Speights, Toney Douglas, C Jermaine O’Neal, Nemanja Nedovic (draft pick)

Why they’re better: Simply, Andre Iguodala. Acquiring the veteran forced out Jack and Landry, but also provides instant depth for a young team that basically rode seven players in the playoffs after David Lee injured his hip. The tough call for coach Mark Jackson will be moving either semi-conscious shooter Klay Thompson or confident forward Harrison Barnes to the bench (both started every game they played last season) to make room for the 6-foot-6 Iguodala. Thompson could challenge for Sixth Man of the Year honors and he’d easily replace the scoring punch Jack provided. The second-year Barnes, who truly emerged during the playoffs, can provide everything the blue-collar Landry delivered only with advanced skills in every facet, especially with his burgeoning offensive arsenal. Barnes could discover some very favorable matchups off the bench. Speights, more accurately, will be expected to fill Landry’s role. The Warriors also bring back impressive frontcourt youngsters Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli, who should benefit from the presence of the steady veteran O’Neal.

INDIANA PACERS

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Loses: F Tyler Hansbrough, F Jeff Pendergraph

Additions: F Chris Copeland, G C.J. Watson, G Donald Sloan, F Solomon Hill (draft pick)

Why they’re better: The wild card here is forward Danny Granger, who missed all but five games last season with a left knee injury but will be back. With Paul George emerging as a star, Granger could find himself as the Pacers’ sixth man — imagine that. A better bench might have pushed Indiana past Miami in the East finals. The Pacers were one of six teams whose bench averaged fewer than 80 mpg, and they ranked 29th in scoring. The veteran Watson should stabilize a backcourt that had no consistent answer (D.J. Augustin) coming off the bench last season. Watson is a solid veteran who rarely turns the ball over — less than one a game in 19.0 mpg last season with Brooklyn — and is the type of team-first player president of basketball operations Larry Bird wants for coach Frank Vogel. And then there’s the unexpected feather in Bird’s cap — forward Chris Copeland. The 29-year-old late-bloomer provided the Knicks with energetic play off the bench and surprising accuracy from beyond the arc (59-for-140, 42.1 percent). The 6-foot-8, 235-pounder gives Indy a rugged backup for David West and weakens a rival.

BROOKLYN NETS

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Loses: G C.J. Watson, G Keith Bogans, G MarShon Brooks, F Kris Humphries

Additions: G Jason Terry, G Shaun Livingston, G D.J. White, F Andrei Kirilenko, C/F Mason Plumlee (draft pick)

Why they’re better: While a pudgy Deron Williams hobbled about on bum ankles for the first couple of months last season, the Nets’ bench carried the team, so they were no slouches to begin with. But when you add Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the starting lineup, that turns rebounding machine Reggie Evans and offensive weapon Andray Blatche into reserves and instantly improves that group. Terry remains a dangerous streak shooter even after a down season in Boston. The 6-foot-7 Livingston has quietly resurrected his career and should find a home backing up D-Will, who played like an All-Star in the second half of last season. The coup was snagging Kirilenko, who signed for $3.18 million after opting out of his $10-million deal with Minnesota. Kirilenko is always a nagging injury away from missing handfuls of games at a time, but the 6-foot-9 countryman of Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is a do-it-all stat-sheet-filler. He is a sneaky offensive presence on the baseline and a rangy defender the Nets can use against Carmelo Anthony and other rival scoring threats.

Howard To Houston Is A Two-Fisted Gut Punch For Mavs

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – If the Los Angeles Lakers recoiled at the sobering prospect of dealing Dwight Howard to an already rising divisional foe, imagine the steam clouds that spewed from the ears of Mark Cuban as if his head was an erupting Mount Vesuvius when he learned the big man had agreed to join the aspiring Houston Rockets.

Cuban seemed to take the news in stride Friday afternoon when the Dallas Mavericks’ owner was notified that his team was out of the running for the summer’s most coveted free agent. At the time, he said he was not told with which team Howard would sign.

“Got word we are out of the DH sweepstakes,” Cuban wrote in an email to various media outlets. “We gave it a shot and it didn’t work out. It was truly an experience. At some point I will post our video and presentation we made.”

The Rockets, Golden State Warriors and the incumbent Los Angeles Lakers remained in play. But only a short time later, USA Today, followed by TNT’s David Aldridge confirmed that Howard will leave the Lakers and join the Mavs’ Southwest division rival.

This one will deeply burn the Mavs, now two-time losers trying to lure a big-name free agent to pair with a now 35-year-old Dirk Nowitzki.

All the while Cuban controversially, yet strategically was dismantling his 2011 championship club in anticipation of re-building a contender by creating cap space to lure a superstar (or two) under the guidelines of the new collective bargaining agreement, his in-division, in-state rival in southeast Texas was scheming just the same.

Daryl Morey, the gambling Houston Rockets’ general manager, set in motion a number of trades and transactions over the last two years to ultimately acquire players, cap space and other assets that would position the Rockets to strike when opportunities arose, to swing for the fences through both trades and free agency.

The Rockets should give Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti a tip of the cap for making this behemoth agreement possible. Before the start of last season, the Thunder’s salary-cap-strapped GM dealt rising star James Harden to Houston as Morey dipped into his collection of assets. Harden became an All-Star and delivered the Rockets back into the playoffs. Now Morey has Howard, too, his longtime target.

Aside from the Lakers, who practically begged Howard to re-sign, no team will find this harder to swallow than Dallas. The scenario of Howard to Houston was always the Mavs’ worst nightmare, leaving the franchise third in pecking order in its own state behind the Rockets and the ever-resilient San Antonio Spurs.

The Warriors cleared out cap space Friday and added another top-flight free agent in Andre Iguodala – a Mavs target in the case they whiffed on Howard — to a young and talented roster that challenged the Spurs in the second round. Golden State won’t be too disappointed in not landing Howard. They were always a long-shot in this race and even without Howard they look to be putting together something special.

The Atlanta Hawks, flush with cap space, never seemed to elevate their hopes too high that Howard would reverse his long-held thinking and decide to play in his hometown. General manager Danny Ferry will now attempt to piece together the best team he possibly can for new coach Mike Budenholzer.

This was Strike Two for Dallas. A year ago, it chased native son Deron Williams, but was rebuffed. It signed a slew of players to one-year deals to keep their free-agent “powder dry” — as president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson is fond of saying — and to go after Howard or Chris Paul this summer.

Williams’ Nets now have the look of a contender after general manager Billy King pulled off the stunning trade that brings Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. CP3 got Doc Rivers and is staying put and now the Rockets with Howard will vault into the top four or five in the West with Warriors, CP3′s Clippers, the Thunder and the reigning West champion Spurs.

And Houston might not be done. They have long been reported to seek Atlanta free agent power forward Josh Smith, a childhood buddy of Howard, who’s reluctance to join the Mavs leaves the franchise reeling. Two seasons ago they were swept out of the first round by the Thunder and this season failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons.

Nowitzki, understanding his years are numbered, has repeatedly called this a “big offseason for us.”

Yet on the roster at this moment with him is Shawn Marion, 35, Vince Carter, 36, two 2012 second-round draft picks Jae Crowder and Bernard James, plus 2013 first-round pick Shane Larkin and newly signed Israeli guard Gal Mekel. 

As Howard’s drama dragged on, Dallas missed out on other free-agent targets, most notable Iguodala. The Clippers re-signed role player Matt Barnes and on Thursday center Al Jefferson signed a lucrative deal with the Charlotte Bobcats.

So where do Cuban and the Mavs go from here?

Dallas, 41-41 last season with Nowitzki playing in only 53 games after preseason knee surgery, has glaring holes at point guard, shooting guard and center. They can seek a trade but possess few assets to entice a team into dealing a player of stature. They learned that quickly in reported talks with Boston for Rajon Rondo.

Cuban said after the season that he doesn’t want to go through another year of one-year contracts, preferring to find players that are core-worthy. Now he and Nelson must decide if, for instance, still available guards Monta Ellis, Mo Williams or Jarrett Jack are building-block players they want to commit years and dollars to at the risk of cutting into cap space for next summer. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Zach Randolph, among others, could be on the market.

But the Mavs have twice seen what a crapshoot that strategy can be.