The Los Angeles Clippers were winners of seven of nine games with the seventh-best net rating in the NBA and an 11-5 record before Tuesday's second-half collapse in Washington. More fascinating than their early success, though, is that they have been beating up their opponents with a strange, but extremely compelling hodgepodge of players, none of whom has ever made an All-Star team.
In an era of superteams, the Clippers have been killing everybody with depth. Their bench has not only been the best in basketball by aggregate net rating, it is scoring almost as much (56.1 points per game) as their starters (61.8 points per game), which is unheard of. A friend of mine compared them to the X-Men, and not just because Boban Marjanovic looks like an actual action hero: everyone has a special skill.
"That's what's so refreshing about watching this team play," coach Doc Rivers said. "And guys thus far, they buy into it. They like it. Every night, it seems like there's a different guy that steps forward for us. And that's who we have to be, and we have to be accepting of that. As long as we don't have any issues with I didn't get my touches or things like that, we're in good shape."
Their chemistry might be the most impressive part of this start. Everybody knows Los Angeles wants to sign Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard next summer, and more than half the team is playing on an expiring contract, if you include Avery Bradley (who reportedly has just $2 million of his $13 million guaranteed next season). Forwards Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari are the only players averaging more than 28 minutes; everybody else could argue he deserves more playing time. Despite all this, the Clippers are more than the sum of their parts and appear to be having a ball. Marjanovic said they play like a team, take care of each other and have noticed the smiles they're putting on people's faces.
"I just think you can't think about contracts and none of that shit," stretch forward Mike Scott told CBS Sports. "Everyone's going to get what they want if we all win."
In Brooklyn on Saturday, Rivers dusted off rookie Jerome Robinson with seven seconds left in the second quarter. Robinson immediately made a 3-pointer and earned another stint in the second half. Rivers laughed on the sideline because he was trying lineups he'd never used before in an effort to find some energy. They outscored the Nets 37-22 in the fourth quarter, with Robinson, Lou Williams and Sindarius Thornwell playing together for the first time. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who started but didn't play for the final 17 minutes, cheered his teammates on.
"Everyone is close," Scott said. "It's a selfless team. We're not me, me, me. It's an unselfish team on both ends. We just gotta keep this thing going the way we've been going. Just keep playing the same way, keep sharing the ball, keep talking on defense and put these wins together."
Marjanovic, who Rivers called "the greatest team player in the league right now," has gone from Marcin Gortat has started 14 games and received DNP-CDs in the other three. Bradley called the centers' professionalism amazing.to warming the bench.
"That's what team basketball is all about," Bradley said. "Please believe it doesn't go unnoticed. And I think it's contagious."
Rivers said Los Angeles knows exactly what it has to do in order to win, but he's still learning how to deal with a group this deep. It was an adjustment to stop worrying so much about foul trouble, as he always has someone else he can sub in.
It makes sense that Rivers is still getting used to this: the Lob City teams were top-heavy, and last year's Clippers had to turn to G League call-ups when injuries derailed their season. The way backup big man Montrezl Harrell has been playing lately, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams might not even be their best candidate for the award. Harrell's per-minute numbers are beyond bonkers, and by my unofficial tally he leads the league in violent, backboard-shaking dunks.
Harrell said the Clippers are special because they're tough and together, telling CBS Sports that this is the most fun he's had in his career: "We just go in, looking to fight, compete, get it going and have fun doing it." Asked to define the team's identity, Scott needed only four words.
"We ain't no bitches," he said.
The Clippers will play next when they host the Grizzlies on Friday (3:30 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension).
Once again, patience is required in Philly
When everybody started talking about how Jimmy Butler would fit with the 76ers, I thought about . In January 2016, I saw Butler score 40 points in the second half, erasing a 15-point lead and leading the Chicago Bulls to a win against the Toronto Raptors on the road. It was extraordinary. It was stunning. It was also rather simple.
Over and over again, Butler ran isolations and high pick-and-rolls. Over and over again, he scored, got to the free-throw line or found an open teammate with ease. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were out of the lineup, and when Butler got going, coach Fred Hoiberg decided to ride his hot hand. This was the first time I truly understood what Butler meant when he infamously called himself a point guard. If you surround him with shooters and a big man who can set solid screens, he can put on a show.
Unfortunately, we have never seen Butler in that kind of environment for an extended period of time. When the Rose-Noah era ended, the Bulls brought in Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, then traded Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves, where the floor was cramped and other mouths needed feeding. Philadelphia is not an ideal situation to maximize Butler's gifts on offense, either -- as about a million people have pointed out, Ben Simmons doesn't take 3s, Joel Embiid deserves post touches and the front office is under pressure to add more shooting.
I'll admit it: Part of me wishes I could see Butler get to do what Giannis Antetokounmpo is doing this year. Butler is hard to stop going downhill, and he is a better passer than his reputation suggests. Put him in space and he could make magic happen.
There is a tendency, though, to marvel at Antetokounmpo's Bucks and come away thinking every team should look like them. Sure, if you were trying to maximize Butler individually, you'd build a team where he almost always has the ball in his hands with a bunch of high-volume 3-point shooters alongside him. The same is true for Simmons -- we saw what that looked like down the stretch of last year's regular season. The Sixers, however, are obviously not just trying to create an environment where one star player can thrive. They are trying to build a championship team. A few points on this:
- There are clear limits to the one-star system in today's NBA, and even having two elite players probably isn't enough. James Harden's Houston Rockets fell apart in the playoffs two years ago, so they added Chris Paul. LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers clearly missed Kyrie Irving last season, even though they made the NBA Finals. Teams serious about winning a title hoard talent not just because they have to find a way to compete with the Golden State Warriors, but because the postseason forces you to adapt. If you self-destruct every time your best player goes to the bench, you're in trouble.
- Last year's Sixers had to turn to T.J. McConnell to extend their series against the Boston Celtics because their lack of playmaking was exposed. In a world where switching is the new norm on defense, it's not enough to have a pretty offensive system that generates good looks out of ball movement. You need a diversified attack and multiple players who can draw a second defender and create good looks out of thin air.
- As Cleaning The Glass' Ben Falk pointed out, Butler is actually a solid spot-up shooter, Brett Brown is a creative coach and smart players tend to make things work. I'd add that everyone involved should be motivated to figure this thing out -- Philly surrendered two important players to bring Butler aboard, and, barring a trade or Butler sacrificing money this summer, the core will not change in the foreseeable future. Through four games, I am encouraged by the way Butler, Simmons and Embiid are trying to make this work.
All of this is why, despite the Sixers' struggles with turnovers and extremely low 3-point rate since the trade, I don't find myself drifting over to the "this is untenable" side of the spectrum. The pieces don't fit together as neatly as they do in Golden State, but that shouldn't be the standard. Most of the time, when a few stars team up, there is a feeling-out process like the one James, Wade and Chris Bosh experienced. It eventually worked out for those guys. The 76ers will try to make it four straight wins when they welcome the Pelicans to town on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension).
'Go watch some highlight reels'
It would be perfectly understandable if Evan Turner and Andre Iguodala never got along. The Philadelphia 76ers drafted Turner second overall in 2010 despite the fact they played the same position. Both were at their best with the ball in their hands, and neither was much of a floor spacer. Plenty of people in Iguodala's position would have resented the new guy.
"Of course," Turner told CBS Sports. "You naturally want to hold your spot in a sense. You know, you think they're bringing in people to take it. And Dre is a prideful person."
Iguodala, though, was the first person Turner called when his agent told him the Portland Trail Blazers had offered him a $70 million contract in 2016. To say the two playmakers have remained close since their days in Philadelphia would be a massive understatement.
"Me and Dre, we butted heads for like a little period of time," Turner said. "But I was just young. I had up-and-down emotional moments, but I think when it came down to it, and what kept us pretty cool, I always knew he cared. Eventually, unfortunately, they broke that team up, but I was in his wedding. I'm the godfather to his daughter. We're always brothers. He was always there for me through my dark times. He always allowed me to be there and support him through some of his best times."
In terms of handling criticism and how to conduct yourself in a locker room, Turner learned a lot from his two years as Iguodala's backup. "If my vet was hostile," Turner said, he might have modeled that behavior. He appreciates that Iguodala set a good example.
"He was selfless," Turner said. "He always gave himself up. Even stepping up in that role in Philly -- people probably don't remember now, but he was like the most hated person on Earth. Whether it was right or wrong, he never, ever threw his teammates under the bus and he always took the blame when it probably wasn't even his fault. He still never let that mess him up. He still was able to be an All-Star and do great things. I always saw him, how he prepares: it's always about the next day, next game and not worrying about anything else."
On a recent podcast appearance, Turner told ESPN's Zach Lowe that Iguodala should be a Hall of Famer. He thinks Iguodala's resume -- NBA Finals MVP, three championships, an Olympic gold medal, an All-Star appearance, a crucial part of some of the best teams ever -- speaks for itself, but All-Defensive Team voters did him dirty for years. Iguodala is one of the best perimeter defenders in NBA history, but he never made it until he went to the Warriors. To Turner, this is a "joke."
It's fascinating to think about how differently Iguodala would have been perceived had he played his early and prime years in a more modern league. The hate Iguodala received in Philadelphia was a reaction to him not being an Allen Iverson-esque volume scorer, but in a world where even casual fans have some understanding of what real plus-minus is, his defensive brilliance and ability to control the tempo of a game might have been celebrated.
"You gotta really know basketball to comprehend what he brings to it," Turner said.
According to Turner, Iguodala always had the respect of his peers. "He was clutch; I always thought that was dope," he said. Turner also argued that Iguodala had "probably the best dunk in dunk contest history" -- his reverse dunk off the back of the backboard -- before Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine took things to another level.
And if you don't remember Iguodala cramming one on Yao Ming, Turner has a suggestion: "Go watch some highlight reels."
Why did New York give up on a promising young center?
To be fair, when the Knicks traded him to the Charlotte Hornets for a pair of future second-round picks last February, he wasn't in the rotation and he wanted out. New York had a crowded center rotation and it wasn't clear if he was a good on-court fit next to his best friend, Kristaps Porzingis.
But still: Hernangomez never should have been getting DNP-CDs. He was only 23 at the time, and it's not as if Enes Kanter and Kyle O'Quinn were seen as significant parts of the organization's future. The Knicks were and are in the business of player development, and Hernangomez was a crafty post player with nice touch who was working on his 3-point shooting in practice.
That work is now paying off elsewhere. Hernangomez hit a couple of 3s in the Hornets' 117-112 win over the Boston Celtics on Monday, and he went 3-for-3 from deep a couple of weeks ago in Philadelphia. He has made 10 of his 17 3-point attempts on the season, a tiny sample but an encouraging one.
Hernangomez's value remains complicated because of his inability to defend on the perimeter, and I am not saying that he is on the verge of stardom. I am merely arguing that New York didn't need to give up on a promising center in the middle of a multi-year rebuilding process. I doubt Porzingis, its franchise player, would disagree.
Meanwhile, the Knicks will try and snap their six-game losing skid on Wednesday when they visit the Boston Celtics (7:30 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension).
Watch your feet
When I watched Butler's Philadelphia debut, I found myself yelling at the screen because of Orlando Magic forward Wesley Iwundu, who has a nasty habit of taking the longest 2-pointers possible. Three separate times against the Sixers, Iwundu caught the ball on the perimeter with a good look at a 3-pointer. What happened after the catch is why the term "shot preparation" exists:
The fact that he made the shots drove me even crazier. You're leaving free points on the table! Don't hesitate! Watch your feet!
10 more stray thoughts: I'd love the Kings' city edition jerseys if not for the "SACTOWN" thing … The Grizzlies' " ," as Mike Conley called it, is going swimmingly … I actively feel sympathy for Igor Kokoskov's coaching staff every time the Suns find themselves in a close game without a point guard to organize them … Is this finally the year Eastern Conference player of the week (!) Nikola Vucevic plays himself out of Orlando? … I get why J.R. Smith wants out, but making a trade would have been much easier if he had been more efficient this season … Where does Isaiah Thomas fit in Denver now that Monte Morris has emerged? … There is still time to hop on the Hamidou Diallo bandwagon … The Jazz's 3-pointers have to start falling at some point, right? … Honestly, Durant's desire not to be psychoanalyzed by strangers is pretty relatable … The fact that two former Wizards said they need to blow it up is a decent indication that they need to blow it up.