10:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Suns -1, Over/Under: 224
On the eve of the All-Star Break, a pair of teams looking to have bolstered their ranks in lieu of the playoffs clash in the desert, as the Los Angeles Clippers face off against the surging Phoenix Suns from Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. After the final implosion of the Nets last week, make no mistake that time is ticking away for the NBA’s other grand experiment, as the Clippers (32-28, 5th in Western Conference) desperately attempt to make good on their championship designs laid four years ago. Indeed, it may seem like a lifetime ago when Los Angeles made serious waves during the summer of 2019 in signing (reigning Finals MVP) Kawhi Leonard as a free agent alongside (All-Star Swingman) Paul George in a blockbuster trade, creating a new axis of power in the City of Angels. Though they enjoyed an initially successful run together, the Clips collapsed spectacularly in the Bubble, relinquishing a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in the Western Semifinals, leading to the ousting of (Head Coach) Doc Rivers. Leonard would then suffer a torn ACL two thirds into the following campaign as the club overachieved in upsetting the top-seeded Jazz en route to their first Western Conference Final in franchise history (where they were eliminated by the Suns, no less). Unfortunately, they failed to build on this momentum as Leonard (pictured above) missed all of the next season, with his team in turn missing the postseason altogether. Now it’s year number four, and Leonard, George, and (Head Coach) Tyronn Lue are each on the hotseat to deliver a winner for (Owner) Steve Balmer, who acquired the franchise back in 2014. While they spent much of the first half of this season dealing with load management for both of their stars, the Clippers have finally begun to round into form, winning ten of their last seventeen games following a disappointing 21-21 start. So, what in the name of Danny Manning has happened in Southern California, you ask? Well, their stars have managed to get healthy, which as we’ve seen in the past goes a long way. During this recent stretch, they’ve reinforced their standing as one of the most effective halfcourt offenses in the Association, averaging 115.5 points per game on a healthy 48.4% shooting from the field, including 39.8% from beyond the arc, while dishing out 21.7 assists in comparison to committing just 10.9 turnovers. Leonard has appeared in all but three of these games, logging 27.9 points on a stellar 53.0% shooting, including 45.6% from downtown, along with 6.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.0 steals per contest, while George hasn’t been far behind averaging 22.1 points on 48.3% shooting and 38.8% from long range, with 6.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.4 steals. However, it hasn’t been all rainbows and unicorns for Lue’s troops during this run, for they have really fallen off defensively, relinquishing 112.8 points on 48.8% shooting, including 41.7% from deep, along with 24.2 assists opposed to forcing 11.8 turnovers. Needless to say, that’s a rather steep decline for a team allowing the fourth-fewest points in the NBA (111.0) and ranking tenth in both defensive rating (113.3) and effective field goal percentage allowed (53.9%). So, we ask again: what in the name of Elton Brand is going on? Well, there are two factors at play here, which are also telling given Lue and (General Manager) Lawrence Frank’s activity at last Thursday’s Trade Deadline. The Clippers were in hot pursuit of legitimate size to bolster their frontcourt, while searching far and wide for a natural Point Guard to run the Offense. The latter was the more serious need, as both Leonard and George have been forced to become de facto floor generals of late, which takes away from the efficiency of the offense while also sapping precious energy that could otherwise be utilized on the defensive end where they have been lacking. Los Angeles added (veteran Point Guard) John Wall in the offseason, but it became rather clear that the former All-Star was a shell of himself after missing so much time due to injury, essentially freezing him out of the rotation altogether. Here’s what the club came up with at the deadline, folks: after swinging and missing on Kyrie Irving, they acquired (sharpshooting Guard) Eric Gordon (along with three second round picks) in a three-team trade with the Grizzlies and Rockets, parting ways with Wall and Luke Kennard in the process, while also adding the likes (young gunner) Bones Hyland and (veteran Center) Mason Plumlee in separate deals that saw them spend multiple second-rounders in a four-team parlay for the former and (veteran Point Guard) Reggie Jackson in exchange for the latter. So, here is the final question, folks: are the Clippers any better now than they were before the deadline? Though Plumlee is a capable veteran big man who should slot in nicely behind (young Center) Ivica Zubac on the depth chart, neither Gordon nor Hyland addresses their need at Point Guard. Sure, both players should enjoy themselves within an offense dominated by jump shots, but neither has played much at the One in their respective careers, which means facilitating the attack will likely continue to be the burden of Leonard and George. Granted, there is still the buy-out market that needs exploring, with the likes of a pair of former MVPs in the form of Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose, along with younger options like Will Barton and Bryn Forbes. Looking to tonight’s affair with the Suns, the Clippers have lost four of the last five regular season meetings between the clubs, including each of their two encounters this year. Neither outing was particularly close, as Los Angeles scored exactly ninety-five points in both of them, while yielding over 110 points along the way. With that said, it’s easy to understand their struggles on the offensive end of the hardwood, as Leonard missed both outings, while George participated in only one of them. In their most recent encounter, a 111-95 loss at crypto.com Arena back in mid-December, the hosts shot just 37.8% from the field, with twenty-one assists in comparison to committing sixteen turnovers. With neither Leonard nor George to call upon, Lue relied upon (young Swingman) Terrence Mann to carry the load with twenty-two points, eleven rebounds, and four assists. From a betting perspective, the Clippers are an even 5-5 both straight-up and against the spread over their last ten outings, regardless of the venue, while covering six of their last ten contests away from cyrpto.com Arena. Furthermore, they’re a solid 4-1 over their last five games in which they’ve been a road underdog between 0.5-4.5 points, which is the case tonight. On the injury front, this team is always difficult to predict given they were the ones to coin the term “load management”, with either Leonard or George being rested on any given night, which is reasonable given their respective injury histories. At this point, the only player currently tabbed to be “rested” is (sparkplug Guard) Norman Powell, who has been nothing short of productive since being acquired at last year’s Trade Deadline.
Meanwhile, there were two teams to benefit from the Nets’ demise last week, with the latter of them being the Suns (32-27, 4th in Western Conference), who made the most seismic deadline deal that the league has seen in well, quite a while. That’s right, folks, after the aforementioned Irving made his request to be traded public, one eye was fixated on the polarizing Point Guard, with the other squarely on (All-NBA Forward) Kevin Durant, who would quietly reaffirm his desire to be moved. Granted, the former MVP reportedly wanted out of Brooklyn last Summer, though the club ultimately relented moving him due to a lack of offers to their liking. Rather than spend the season pouting, the 34-year-old promptly balled out in the Big Apple, averaging 29.7 points on a career-best 55.9% shooting from the field, including 37.6% from beyond the arc, with 6.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.5 blocks, while piloting the Nets up the standings in the East. However, a sprained MCL has sidelined him for seventeen games now, with reports indicating that he won’t return until after the All-Star Break at the earliest. Nevertheless, Phoenix acted quickly, with their new owner, Matt Ishbia, wishing to make a splash which (General Manager) Joe Johnson did in acquiring the services of the four-time scoring champion. Granted, the Suns were one of the few teams that were reportedly on Durant’s (pictured above) list during the summer, making them a realistic landing spot in exchange for (two-way sensation) Mikal Bridges, (wantaway Forward) Jae Crowder, and (Sharpshooter) Cam Johnson, along with a plethora of first round picks as the deal grew to include two other teams. From Phoenix’s perspective, this deal couldn’t come at a better time. After posting the best record in the league over the previous two seasons (115-39, .746), the Suns came oh so close to capturing the franchise’s first NBA Championship before crashing out of the playoffs the following Spring in embarrassing fashion. This campaign has been nothing short of uneven as injuries have ravaged the rotation, with (Head Coach) Monty Williams forced to navigate the proverbial wilderness without the services of (All-Star Guards) Devin Booker and Chris Paul, along with (backup Guard) Cam Payne and the aforementioned Johnson for long stretches thanks to various maladies. As a result, the club sat at an uninspiring 21-24 as of mid-January, though as they got healthier managed to turn things around with ten victories over their last thirteen contests; during this period, they’ve regained their ruthless efficiency on the offensive end of the hardwood, posting 112.9 points per game on 46.0% shooting, including 36.3% from downtown, while dishing out a healthy 28.2 assists opposed to committing just 13.2 turnovers. Having Paul and Booker back in the saddle has obviously helped immensely, with the latter having missed twenty-one consecutive games due to a lingering hamstring strain. Now, the question is this: how does Durant fit alongside Paul and Booker and is it enough to maximize what is left of this group’s championship window? Well, at first glance it’s rather clear that this triumvirate figures to cause all manner of problems for opponents, primarily because Durant fits seamlessly into just about any system, particularly one rooted in the pick-and-roll with Paul at the controls. All three wreak havoc in this setup, while each of them has proven throughout their careers to be unselfish. Furthermore, with Paul set to turn 38-years old in May, the presence of Durant alleviates much of the burden from the shoulder of the future Hall of Famer, while also ensuring that Booker should be happy with life in Phoenix after the Point God moves on. Sure, losing Bridges hurts, while that bounty of picks was nothing short of a war chest, but it is extremely rare that a player of Durant’s quality becomes available during the season. Though we’ll likely have to wait another week to see how this all fits together, this transaction has the potential to vault Phoenix back to the top of the Western Conference and maybe back into the Finals where they have some glaringly unfinished business. In the meantime, they’ll close out the first half of the campaign against the Clippers, whom they have handled with relative ease in each of their previous encounters this season. As we stated earlier, Los Angeles was far from full strength in each affair, while the Suns were having no such issues at the moment; in their first meeting back on October 23rd, Booker went off for thirty-five points on 13-of-21 shooting (61.9%), while in their most recent battle, it was the departed Bridges who made the impact with twenty-seven points on 11-of-18 shooting (61.1%), with Paul dishing out thirteen assists along the way. Though he has enjoyed some stellar moments against Los Angeles, Booker hasn’t necessarily exceled against over the course of his career from a statistical perspective, averaging 21.0 points on just 40.5% shooting from the floor and 29.9% from long range, along with 3.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists in twenty-seven career meetings (including playoffs). From a betting perspective, the Suns are both 4-6 straight-up and against the spread over the last ten games, regardless of the venue, while covering just four of their last ten outings at Footprint Center. Furthermore, they’re just 4-6 against the spread as a favorite, which is the cast tonight. On the injury front, we already covered Durant’s ongoing absence, with this latest stint on the injured list expected to conclude after the All-Star Break. As for the likes of (Guards) Landy Shamet and the aforementioned Payne are both sidelined with foot maladies, with no timetable for their return at the moment.