The Big Picture:
The Clippers come into today’s game with a lot left to play for. Sure, they finally clinched a playoff spot with yesterdays win over the Utah Jazz, but a lot of positioning is still up in the air. L.A. has 8 games left, and they still need to make up one loss on Utah to secure homecourt advantage in the first round. Despite having won three more games, they’re also tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the loss column, and the Grizzlies are lingering just behind OKC. A strong close to the season will likely be enough to earn the Clippers the 4-seed, but they’re still in a position where a slide could cause a plummet to 7th place, by far their worst finish in the Chris Paul era.
The team has seemingly begun to turn a corner after a fairly ugly stretch post-All-Star Break. They’ve really struggled ever since the fateful loss to the Detroit Pistons on that late-November road trip (30-28 since then), but they missed Chris Paul and/or Blake Griffin for almost all of that time. Their 5-6 mark in the first 11 games with the roster intact was incredibly disappointing, but the Clippers have since won four of their last five games. Each win has been in convincing fashion, and the loss came at the buzzer. Still, the simple eye test reveals that the Clippers still aren’t quite where they need to be if they want to go on a magical playoff run. They’ve got 8 more games—and a potential first-round series against the Utah Jazz—before they’ll need to be at their absolute best in the second round against the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs.
The Sacramento Kings, for all the jokes regarding the DeMarcus Cousins trade, finally have direction. After failing miserably to put a playoff roster around Cousins for years, the Kings finally decided to blow it up and move on. It’s a painful process—and the return from New Orleans certainly could have been better—but the sooner you start it, the closer you are to wherever you’re going. Since the trade, new core piece Buddy Hield has thrived, despite struggling with the Pelicans: he’s averaging 15 points a game on 50% from the field and 44.9% from deep. Cousins’ departure has also allowed for the emergence of rookie Skal Labissiere, who is averaging 11.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in March after barely seeing the court earlier in the season. Inconsistent but talented second-year center Willie Cauley-Stein has also seen a boost in production.
The Kings were still in the conversation for the 8th seed at the trade deadline, but moving Cousins predictably ended their candidacy. Sacramento now sits at 13th in the conference, ahead of only the lowly Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers. They’re presently tied with the Philadephia 76ers for the 6th-worst record in the league, and they own the New Orleans Pelicans’ pick this season, which is presently slotted to be top-10. Because the 76ers own the right to swap picks with the Kings, Sacramento is currently projected to select 7th and 9th in this year’s draft. That’s not a bad stepping stone to a rebuild.
Former Clipper Matt Barnes, who signed a two-year contract with the Kings last summer, is no longer in Sacramento after being released and joining the Golden State Warriors. The other former Clipper, Darren Collison, is the only remaining player on the Kings who is averaging double figures and has been on the roster the entire season. He’s averaging 13 points and 5 assists while shooting 47% from the field and 42% from deep in a contract year.
What the hell? The NBA decided to give the Clippers a rare back-to-back set of matinees this year, with yesterday’s game against the Utah Jazz tipping at 12:30 PM followed by today’s game at the same time against the Kings. Not only does this thoroughly ruin the team’s weekend, scheduling-wise, but it also makes planning kinda tough for bloggers.
As a result, you guys get this abridged preview—and since it comes with just a few hours to spare before tip-off, we’ll let this comment section serve as today’s gamethread as well.