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Clippers Vulnerable Without Perimeter Stopper

A roller-coaster ride of a season for the Los Angeles Clippers ended on Thursday night with a 104-98 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6. After winning 57 games in the regular season and going to six games in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, the Clippers established themselves as an elite team. However, the jump from good to great is the toughest leap to make in the NBA and the loss to Thunder exposed some holes that will need to be addressed. 

As great as Chris Paul is on both sides of the ball, he’s got no answer for Russell Westbrook. At 6’0 190, he just doesn’t have the size for “Point Godzilla”, who absolutely destroyed him in their 1-on-1 matchup. Before a poor shooting performance in Game 6, Westbrook was averaging 30 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds a game in the series. He went 4-15 from on Thursday, but he still handed out 12 assists, attempted 12 free throws and got wherever he wanted to go on the court.

Westbrook is one of the biggest point guards and best athletes in the league - it’s almost unfair to ask Paul to guard him for 40 minutes. On the other end of the floor, the Thunder could put Thabo Sefolosha and Reggie Jackson on Paul at various points in the series, giving him a different look and allowing Westbrook to catch his breath. Oklahoma City has waves of long, athletic perimeter defenders they can throw at the other team - the Clippers only have Matt Barnes.

In this series, Barnes had to stick with Kevin Durant for the duration. Los Angeles really didn’t have anyone else who could guard the NBA MVP, apart from the inspired move of sticking Paul on him in Game 4. Everyone else in their perimeter rotation is either an offensive-minded player - JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison - or is just hopeless against elite athletes - Jared Dudley and Danny Granger. To win three playoff series in the West, you need two perimeter stoppers.

Let’s say the Clippers wound up on the other side of the bracket and had to face the San Antonio Spurs. Even if we assume that Paul can guard Tony Parker, which he can’t, who is JJ Redick and/or Jamal Crawford going to defend in crunch time? If you put them on Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs can space the floor and allow Leonard to brutalize them on the low block. Nor does either have much of a prayer of staying in front of Manu Ginobili, even at this stage in his career.

That was one of the main reasons they had so much trouble with the Golden State Warriors in the first round, even with Andrew Bogut sidelined and David Lee as their primary rim protector. There are just no easy covers in the trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. If they had faced the Houston Rockets, they would have had to stick a bad defender on James Harden or Chandler Parsons, since Paul isn’t tall enough to match-up with either. 

Redick has turned himself into a functional defender, but that isn’t going to cut it against some of the best basketball players in the world. At 6’5 190, he’s a relatively undersized SG without elite athleticism and he’s one of the only players in the league with a wingspan (6’4) shorter than his height. He tries hard, but he can’t contest shots, move his feet or hold ground in the low post against an elite SG. That’s not going to change as he moves to the wrong side of 30.

Crawford is a two-time Sixth Man of the Year winner and one of the most entertaining players in the sport, but he was never known as a defensive stopper in his prime, much less in his mid-30’s. They are both great offensive players who add different elements to the Clippers attack, but a team with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin shouldn’t need great offense from the shooting guard position. An inability to score the basketball is not what killed them against the Thunder. 

Looking back on it, the player who could have really helped the Clippers in this series was Eric Bledsoe. He was moved to get a more traditional shooting guard in the starting line-up, but they might have wanted to try the Bledsoe-Paul combination before just giving up on it. Bledsoe is one of the only players in the NBA who can look Westbrook in the eye when it comes to pure athleticism and the Phoenix Suns proved you could play him big minutes in a two-PG line-up this season. 

If Oklahoma City could close games with Westbrook and Jackson, there’s no reason L.A. couldn’t have done the same with Bledsoe and Paul. At 6’1 190 with a 6’7 wingspan, Bledsoe plays much bigger than his size and could match up with the best SG’s in the West in a way that Reddick or Crawford can not. Doc Rivers brought in Redick to play the Ray Allen role, but Allen was a much more multi-dimensional player who could also defend and put the ball on the floor.

Redick’s statistics in the regular season - 15 points on 47% shooting - and the playoffs - 13 points on 46% shooting - were great, but it’s not about your statistics at the highest levels of the game. It’s about your skill-set, what you can bring to the floor and how you can match up with other elite teams. The Clippers aren’t going to beat the Thunder in the playoffs with Paul or Reddick guarding Westbrook - and neither Westbrook nor Paul are going anywhere. 

The good news is the solution may already be on their roster in the form of Reggie Bullock, the No. 25 pick in 2013. At 6’7 205 with a 6’9 wingspan, he’s an elite athlete who shot 44% from 3 as a junior at UNC. He isn’t a great ball-handler, but a team with Paul and Griffin in the starting line-up doesn’t need a high usage player at SG. If you have Barnes and Bullock on the perimeter and DeAndre Jordan upfront, you have three potential plus defenders next to Blake and CP3.

That’s how the Clippers need to build their team if they are going to reach the NBA Finals. All roads in the Western Conference go through Oklahoma City and San Antonio and a team with JJ Redick at SG is going to have a hard time matching up with either when the chips are down. When you are trying to win a title, you can’t focus on an individual player’s statistics, you have to look at your roster and how the match-ups will play out over four seven-game series.

C.J. McCollum: How The BPA Rule Fails Outside The Top-5

After a dramatic defeat of the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers got a cold slap of reality from the San Antonio Spurs in the first three games of the second round. While they avoided a sweep with an impressive 15-point victory in Game 4 on Monday, San Antonio returns home with a chance to close them out in Game 5, so they still have a massive hill to climb to keep their season alive.

If they lose on Wednesday, one of the most logical places for internal improvement in the offseason is CJ McCollum. The No. 10 pick in last year's draft, McCollum fell behind the eight ball when he broke his foot in training camp and was never able to crack the rotation as a rookie. Even with a groin injury knocking Mo Williams out of Games 3 and 4 against San Antonio, McCollum has played only 15 total minutes in the series so far.

Given the match-up problems on defense caused by the Spurs, it has been hard for Terry Stotts to get McCollum on the floor. And while he should be a much better player after his first full offseason in the NBA, his skill-set replicates, rather than complements, some of Portland's most important players. That's a cardinal sin when drafting players in the lottery and it's why McCollum may need to be traded to fully showcase his game in the NBA.

It's easy to see why the Blazers were high on McCollum coming into the draft. Like Damian Lillard, McCollum was a combo guard from a small school with unlimited range on his jumper. They both had similar knocks on them - the level of competition, their ceiling as seniors in a freshman-laden draft, their position at the next level. Before breaking his foot halfway through the season, McCollum was averaging 24 points a game on 50 percent shooting as a senior.

After four seasons in the Patriot League, where future NBA players are few and far between, the biggest concern with McCollum was his defense. At 6'3 200 with a 6'6 wingspan, he doesn't have the elite athleticism of the league's best PG's or the size of a SG. Very few young players are competent on that end of the floor, but the ones without the physical tools to match up with an NBA position start their career in a much deeper hole.

To be sure, Lillard had many of the same issues coming out of Weber State. The difference is that he plays such a huge role on offense that the Blazers have no choice but to overlook them. McCollum, as a role player who has to find his way in the league and contribute in other areas of the game, doesn't have the same luxury. Portland has enough trouble hiding Lillard on defense against San Antonio - they can hardly afford to hide two guards.

Lillard was torched by Tony Parker in the first few games of the series, forcing Stotts to switch defensive assignments in the backcourt and move him to Danny Green. However, once Manu Ginobili comes into the game, Portland has to pick their poison, putting Lillard on either Parker, Ginobili or Kawhi Leonard. There is no Patrick Beverley in this series - San Antonio puts pressure on your defense from all five positions on the floor.

Going forward, Portland is going to want as much length and athleticism around Lillard as possible. One of the keys to his early success in the NBA has been sharing a starting unit with Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum, two versatile defenders who can take the tougher assignments on the perimeter. Even if Williams can play in Game 5, it will be hard for Stotts to play two undersized guards major minutes against the Spurs.

While the tandem of Lillard and Williams had some success in the regular season, the deeper the Blazers go in the playoffs, the less they can use them. Neither one of them is guarding Chris Paul if they play the Los Angeles Clippers and neither one is guarding Russell Westbrook if they play the Oklahoma City Thunder. If they had faced the Golden State Warriors, they would have had a real problem with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

The same holds true for Lillard and McCollum. No one shuts down guys like Parker, Curry, Paul or Westbrook, but putting an undersized offensive-minded guard on one of them is a recipe for getting knocked out of the playoffs. When McCollum played in Game 4, Stotts had to stagger the minutes so he and Lillard didn't share a line-up. That problem isn't going away in the off-season - neither guy is adding inches to his height or wingspan.

In essence, with Lillard entrenched at the starting point guard position, Portland used a lottery pick on a guy who can't play more than 10-15 minutes a game in a playoff series. That's not a great use of resources for a small-market team without many other obvious ways of upgrading their roster in the offseason. To take the next step, the Blazers need guys who can accentuate Lillard's strengths and hide his flaws, not the reverse.

After barely playing him as a rookie, they can't trade McCollum without getting pennies on the dollar. One of the great myths of the draft is you have to take the best player available player on the board, but once you get out of the Top 5, the difference between players isn't high enough to justify that. As Portland will soon find out, BPA doesn't mean much if you end up trying to pound a round block into a square hole.

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Centers

Our position-by-position look at the top NBA prospects returning to school next season concludes with the centers. There should be a bumper crop of behemoths in the college game in 2015, who will look to make their mark in a sport traditionally dominate by guards. Last season, Kentucky turned that logic on its head, riding a wave of NBA talent in their frontcourt all the way to the NCAA championship game, despite very inconsistent play from their perimeter players.

Next season will be no different, as John Calipari will have more size upfront than a lot of NBA teams. It’s not just Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein, both of whom would have been first-round picks in 2014. Karl Towns, Trey Lyles and Marcus Lee, while natural PF’s, could all play C for most college teams. For Calipari, the trickiest part will be finding shots and touches for all his big men. Either way, Lexington will once again be a prime destination for NBA scouts. 

Top-5 Centers

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky - Cauley-Stein was one of the more surprising decisions to return to school, given that he could have been a Top 15 pick and he is returning to a logjam in the Kentucky frontcourt next season. I’ve always thought he had a higher ceiling than Nerlens Noel - neither guy is all that skilled on offense, but Cauley-Stein is just as athletic and he’s much bigger (7’0 240). He can switch on the pick-and-roll and lock up guards already. If he develops a post game or a 15-foot jumper this off-season, watch out.

Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga - Karnowski hasn’t gotten a ton of publicity at Gonzaga - he backed up Kelly Olynyk as a freshman and played second fiddle to Sam Dower as a sophomore. However, despite their wealth of talent upfront, the Zags decided to run their offense through a bunch of 6’1 guards instead of the 7’0 300 monster at C. Karnowski is a massive human being with an incredible amount of skill for a guy his size. He averaged 10 points a game on 59% shooting - he needs more than 7 shots a game.

Dakari Johnson, Kentucky - Johnson is kind of the converse of Cauley-Stein. They both have the size to be NBA C’s, but while Cauley-Stein doesn’t have a ton of skill, Johnson doesn’t have a lot of athleticism. At 7’0 260, he has good touch around the rim and a decent post game, but he’s not very agile and his interior defense leaves a lot to be desired. If Johnson can cut some weight off his frame, return to school in better shape and improve as a rebounder and shot-blocker, he will be a lottery pick.

AJ Hammons, Purdue - Progress has been slow for Hammons, whose been stuck on rebuilding teams in his first two seasons in Purdue. Nevertheless, the physical tools are there - at 7’0 250, Hammons is solidly built and can move well for a player his size. He averaged 11 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks a game on 51% shooting as a sophomore. If he can improve those numbers as a junior and get Purdue back in the NCAA Tournament discussion, he will be a first-round pick next year.

Mamadou N’Diaye, UC-Irvine - I didn’t really know what to make of him until I saw him in person, when UC-Irvine played SMU in the NIT. I came away pretty impressed. He’s way more athletic and way more skilled than you would expect a 7’6 300 guy to be. If he was only 7’0, he would still be an NBA prospect. At 7’6, he changes the geometry of the game just by standing in front of the rim. He’s not the most compelling basketball player at this stage in his career, but neither was Roy Hibbert as a freshman.

Other names to watch:

Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona), Joel James (UNC), Nnanna Egwu (Illinois), Nephawe Tshdizivili (New Mexico State)

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Power Forwards

In contrast to small forward and center, where very few players can fit the prototype of size, athleticism and skill, there are usually too many power forward to go around.

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Small Forwards

A small forward who canít shoot 3ís has to have the game to be a primary offensive option at the next level, since the ball will naturally wind up in their hands. As a result, itís become a bit of an all-or-nothing position - thereís no such thing as a role playing SF who canít stretch the floor at the next level.

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Shooting Guards

There is no shortage of big, athletic guards who can shoot the ball - what separates the best SG prospects is the ability to attack the rim and create shots for their teammates.

You Can Never Have Enough Tall Shooters

The Pacers are one of the biggest teams in the NBA, with a 7í2 Goliath standing in front of the rim next to another 6í9 bruiser and three of the longest and most athletic perimeter players in the NBA in front of them. They were built to beat the Heat, a team full of slashers, but they have no answer for an Atlanta offense that plays five out.

Looking To The 2015 NBA Draft: Returning Point Guards

Delon Wright, Marcus Paige, Rysheed Jordan, Andrew Harrison and Ryan Boatright are returning to college, but are the most intriguing point guard prospects for the NBA.

Identifying What Late 1st Round Big Men CAN Do

You can always find a good perimeter player in the D-League, but the best 6í10+ players in the world are pretty much spoken for. Mason Plumlee and Dieng had turned themselves into effective centers in college, but they slipped in the draft because of concerns about their age and ceiling.

Duncan's Longevity & The Meaninglessness Of Stardom

There have been a ton of articles marveling about the Spurs longevity atop the NBA, but there's no real mystery to what's going on. Having Tim Duncan meant your team had a great offense and a great defense. There are not many players in the history of basketball you can say that about.

MCW & Giannis: Why The Eye Test Still Matters

When you are evaluating young players, the statistics can only tell you so much. That's why there are still ways to find steals in the draft - look for the tallest, longest and most athletic guys at each position. Itís really that simple.

Draft Report: Dante Exum Of Australian Institute Of Sport

While Dante Exum isnít quite as long and athletic as Andrew Wiggins, heís far more skilled. Heís an elite athlete in his own right and plays with more poise. You have to play Trading Places with these guys - what would have happened if Exum was on the AAU circuit every summer and Wiggins was in the AIS?

NBA Players Who Could Still Be In College

Itís easy to forget how young some of the players in the league are - freshmen drafted in 2011 would have been college seniors this season. You have to judge young players against guys their age not against the guys in their draft class.

One And Done Model Works For Everyone

John Calipari is 18-3 in the NCAA Tournament at Kentucky. Even more remarkable, he compiled that number with four completely different teams, sending upwards of 15 players to the NBA. Itís a vindication not only of how he built his program, but of the entire ďone and doneĒ model.

The Draft Deadline

The crucial earning years for a basketball player aren't their early 20's but their late 20's, when they are in the prime physically. At that point, it's not about whether they maximized their draft position but whether they developed their game and maximized their earning potential before they start to decline.

Blue Blood Schools Again Taking Country's Best Talent

The programs who reel in multiple players from the McDonaldís game are the sportís blue bloods. There were 13 schools represented at the game, but only five with multiple recruits - Duke and Kentucky with 4, UNC with 3, Kansas and UCLA with 2.

The Bigs Of The Incoming 2014 College Class

Jahlil Okafor, for all his skills, plays more like the No. 1 overall pick in 1994 than 2014. For a glimpse at where the game is going, you have to look at Karl Towns and Myles Turner, two of the other top big men in the class of 2014.

How Kentucky Became Better Than The Sum Of Its Parts

In a tourney filled with unlikely stories, none is more unlikely than John Calipariís Kentucky Wildcats becoming a Cinderella. Rather than 2-3 guys emerging as stars, everyone on has shared the burden, with each member of their rotation coming up big at a different time.

Balance Remains Key To Winning In March

While UCLA could only beat you with offense and San Diego State could only beat you with defense, Arizona and Florida could beat you with both. An elite team can beat you in multiple ways.

All About The Bigs In March

One of the most common misnomers about the NCAA Tournament is that itís a ďguardís game." While it is very hard to win games in March without quality backcourt play, it is just as hard to win them without quality play in the frontcourt. The best teams have good players at each of the five positions on the floor, which allows them to match-up with any opponent.

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