All Ball Sports: Clippers’s risky double down, USC, UCLA coaches both win. So do Rams, Chargers

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis threw five touchdowns during a close 43-38 win over archrival UCLA Saturday night. Photo courtesy of USC Football

What should you do if you place a big, two-part bet that not only turns up snake eyes but also causes you to be mocked and humiliated by your peers and costs you your head coach?

Well, if you’re the Clippers moneybags owner Steve Ballmer you double down on the same bet because you belatedly realize you have no choice but to let it ride and hope that next time it comes up 7s and 11s.

That’s why the news that broke Friday afternoon was stunning to casual hoops fans but not all that surprising to NBA insiders: the Clippers had just handed playoff bust Paul George a 4-year, $190 million contract extension that will pay the 30-year-old borderline All-Star an average of $47.5 million a year in his post-prime years, with a player option for a fifth year at $36 million.

The incredulous questions from hoops experts quickly rained down like a mid-summer thunderstorm.

Why in the world would the Clippers hand out such crazy money to a guy who flopped like a baby shark washed up on the beach when the Clippers needed him most – in the playoffs two months ago? Why give it to him now, when he’s still under contract for another year and has two more years after that with a player option each year? Why not wait and see how he plays this year, and in particular wait and see if he flops in the playoffs once again, as he has consistently throughout his career with the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and now with the Clippers. And most of all, why pay him like a number one star on a championship team when he is at best a number two and ideally would be the third best player on a title team?

The answer to all those complex questions is simple: Because the Clippers put themselves in a dangerous, high-risk, all-in situation 18 months ago without an exit strategy, other than winning an NBA title – or two or three. 

It happened because they saw they were on the verge of reverting back to the same old Clippers role of LA junior varsity to the Lakers varsity once LeBron James came to town and used all his leverage to help Anthony Davis force his way out of New Orleans and into a purple-and-gold uniform.

At the same time in June 2019, it was becoming clear that Kawhi Leonard, fresh off a one-year rental in which he led the Toronto Raptors to their one-and-only NBA title, was going to leave the Raptors as a free-agent and relocate to his So-Cal home base. He grew up in Riverside, where he starred for Martin Luther King High School, before attending San Diego State for two years. That narrowed his choices down to the Lakers or Clippers.

The Lakers, looking to create a Big-3 trio of LeBron, AD and Kawhi that would wipe out any other star combo in the league, put on a full-court press to convince Kawhi to sign with them. But it turned out Kawhi wasn’t looking for a role as LeBron’s side-kick. He remembered how uncomfortable Dwayne Wade was in that role in Miami until he accepted that LeBron was top dog and they won three titles together. He remembered how unhappy Chris Bosh was in his third-banana role in Miami, a dilemma never really resolved until LeBron took his talents out of South Beach. And he remembered how miserable Kyrie Irving was in his designated role as Robin to LeBron’s Batman in Cleveland – something the perpetually unhappy Irving is still whining about to this day. Nor was Kevin Love very happy in his third-man role as a relentless rebounder who was allowed to shoot a 3-pointer whenever LeBron or Kyrie deigned to toss him a bone.                      

So Kawhi told the Clippers he would sign with them – on one big-time condition: that they sign another star to be his side-kick. He didn’t care what they had to do to get that second star, just do it and make him happy enough to sign on the dotted line.

So the Clippers, led by Coach Doc Rivers, Ballmer and front office honcho Lawrence Frank, handed him a list of elite players they thought they might be able to get. Leonard picked George, and sat back and waited for them to pull off a miracle without stripping the guts out of a gritty, over-achieving Clippers team that had just given Golden State a run for its money in the playoffs and figured to be a title contender with Kawhi out front.

So the Clippers gave OKC General Manager Sam Presti an out-of-the-blue call asking about George’s availability. Presti, no rube despite working for a team in the NBA’s smallest market, instantly realized he had all the leverage in this potential transaction. Once he determined that Kawhi had already convinced Leonard to come join him in LA to form a new super-team, he set out to squeeze every last asset he could out of the desperate Clippers.

And what a haul, what a treasure chest of assets, he extracted. Right away, the Clippers agreed to trade their prize rookie, point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a sure-fire future All-Star who has already become the Thunder’s best player. And the Clippers agreed to trade their best shooter, 20 ppg game scorer Danilo Gallanari. But that wasn’t close to being enough for Presti, who kept making demands.

Ballmer balked at the increasingly steep price for a player who had never come close to being an MVP candidate, but Rivers stepped in and convinced Ballmer to look at the trade differently: they weren’t only negotiating the price for George, but also for Leonard, who had made it clear he wouldn’t sign with the Clippers without George already on the roster.

Once Rivers’ view prevailed, Ballmer signed off on a historic give-away: 5 future first-round draft picks, plus two pick swaps, meaning if the Clippers first-round pick was higher than the Thunder’s pick that year, the Thunder had the right to swap picks.

Ultimately, the Clippers paid the steep price Presti demanded – and then they really started paying the price.

Not only did the remaining Clippers resent the departure of several of their favorite teammates, but they also resented the special treatment Kawhi and PG received as the new franchise cornerstones. Essentially, they were allowed to dictate which games they would play and which games they would sit out for “load management.” And when they learned that Kawhi was allowed to live in San Diego and George in Palmdale while the others were required to live near the team’s practice facility in Playa Del Rey, that festered too. Still, they finished third in the Western Conference, which meant they could avoid the Lakers until the WC Finals.

Then came the pandemic, four months of inactivity, and finally the season re-start in the Orlando Bubble. Rivers, Ballmer, Frank and everyone else connected with the Clippers made it clear: anything less than an epic showdown with the Lakers for a slot in the NBA Finals would be an abject failure.

The Lakers made it to the projected showdown, but the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the second round, primarily because George didn’t play like a star, much less a superstar. In the game 7 meltdown, he shot 4 of 16 and is best remembered for hitting the side of the backboard with a late attempt at a 3-pointer. At Live Oak Park, that shot would have gotten him chased off the court. At the Western Conference semifinals, he was mocked and humiliated to the point that the-side-of-the-backboard shot has become shorthand for his total choke job.

The trauma to the organization was so deep, the search for a scapegoat so intense that within a few weeks Rivers was fired and assistant coach Ty Lue was promoted to see if he could heal the team’s bad chemistry and maximize George’s undeniable physical talents.

Lue is a coach who made his rep by standing up to LeBron when both were in Cleveland and demanding that he play better in the 2016 NBA Finals – which he did. Coaxing the super-sensitive George into performing better in the playoffs is going to require more than a successful coach. It’s going to require a psychiatrist. Not even Freud could solve the psychological puzzle of a guy who very publicly gave himself the nickname “Playoff P” when it was starting to be noticed that he always came up small in the playoffs. As All Ball noted last month when the Chargers placekicker Michael Badgley started calling himself “The Money Badger” – a really awkward play off Tyron Matthieu’s “Honey Badger” – you should never trust a player who gives himself a nickname. They’re usually doing it to try to offset a growing perception about a weakness in their game.

George was given this huge extension in the hopes of persuading Kawhi to stay a Clipper when he becomes eligible for an extension next summer.  The Clippers brain-trust realizes that if Kawhi leaves and George stays, the Clippers will have no path to success for at least a half decade and will be stuck with George as their best player while he declines every year and continues to collect massive paychecks: More than a half million dollars per game.

The solution: win an NBA title this season.

Otherwise, Leonard could quite possibly leave and the dice will come up snake eyes for the Clippers’ big, bad bet yet again.

              

USC Making Last Second Miracles Routine

 

There was only one thing missing in USC’s magnificent, thrilling, and utterly exhilarating 43-38 win over archrival UCLA Saturday night: fans in the stands.

In an eerily empty Rose Bowl, TV viewers were treated to everything you could ever want in a college football game: comebacks by both teams, game-changing plays on both sides of the ball, and emotions so raw that moments after it ended USC Coach Clay Helton was spotted trying to tackle his star receiver Drake London, who was on the verge of a fight with some Bruin players.

Of course, most SC fans had mixed emotions after the heart stopping win: thrilled that SC is now 5-0 and headed for the PAC-12 championship game, but also despondent that the incredible win most likely means the widely disliked Helton will get to stick around for another season on a contract that runs until 2023.

But all those concerns were swept aside in the sheer excitement of college football at its finest, minus the screaming fans and competing bands and cheerleaders jumping off white horses.

UCLA jumped out to an 18-point lead early in the third quarter, still led by 12 early in the fourth quarter, and after SC staged an out-of-nowhere comeback to take the lead, had their own comeback to lead by 2 points in the final minute. But USC star quarterback Kedon Slovis led a memorable comeback of his own by throwing for five touchdowns, including the winning score with 16 seconds left on an 8-yard pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown.  The sure-fire future pro leads a talented SC receiving corps that ranks right up there with the best the Trojans have had in the last two decades, including the great Mike Williams, Marquise Lee and Robert Woods.

Incredibly, this was the third last-second comeback victory this year for 5-0 USC, which now moves on to play Oregon Friday night in the PAC-12 championship game at the Coliseum. If they win there, they will be invited to the prestigious Fiesta Bowl.  And they even have a slight chance to be invited to play in the College Football Playoff if one of the four favorites – Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia and Alabama – suffers a bad loss in the next two weeks.

Although there is only a remote chance this could happen, SC fans would salivate at the prospect of playing Georgia. Their new favorite QB, Slovis, would be going man to man against their old favorite quarterback, J.T. Daniels, who was the SC starter before he was badly injured at the start of last season. That injury opened the door for the freshman Slovis to emerge as a star in his own right. Once Slovis played so well that Daniels realized he wasn’t getting his old job back, he transferred to Georgia, worked his way up the depth chart to starting QB for the Bulldogs.

What a reunion that would be.

On the other side of the field, UCLA fans had to be encouraged despite the bitter defeat that looked like it was going to be a rousing victory until the very end.

Coach Chip Kelly, who had been such a disappointment for his first two seasons in LA after promising to emulate the great success he had at Oregon before flaming out in the NFL, finally put a team on the field that stood toe-to-toe with the Trojans.

For most of the season, UCLA only had one recognizable star in Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, or DTR as he is known. But he had to sit out the last two games due to COVID-19 concerns, and in his absence a new star emerged: running back Demetric Felton. He piled up 90 yards in this game, and almost carried the Bruins to victory.

For Kelly, whose job has been in just as much jeopardy as Helton’s, Saturday’s great game against archrival USC, and a final record of 3-3, were encouraging and probably will enable him to get a chance to keep improving his team next year.

In that sense, both coaches came out a winner from this instant classic game.

Rams building toward playoffs, Chargers towards next year

 

It was the rarest of weeks for local NFL fans: the Rams and the Chargers both won. And quarterbacks Jared Goff and Justin Herbert both had good games. 

The Rams crushed New England 24-3 in what was billed as a revenge game for the Rams loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl two years ago. But of course there really was no way this one regular season victory could make up for that stinging 12-3 loss, a loss that first revealed just how toothless the Rams offense would become without the otherworldly talents of superstar running back Todd Gurley.

So in that sense there was a Super Bowl connection: this game was a coming out party for rookie running back Cam Akers, who sprinted for 171 yards and powered the offense the same way Gurley had when the Ram offense ran like a smooth machine. He attracted so much defensive attention that it took all the pressure off Goff and allowed him to flourish in coach Sean McVay’s innovative offensive schemes.

If Akers turns out to be for real, then the Rams are a legitimate Super Bowl contender with a 9-4 record and first place in the NFC West. If he’s not, then the Rams offense will continue to struggle and they’ll have to rely on their great defense to win low-scoring games.

As for the Chargers, they needed their 20-17, last-second win over the hapless Atlanta Falcons the way a starving man needs something – anything – to put in his stomach.

It was an ugly win with both teams exchanging last-minute turnovers, but at this point a win is a win is a win. Plus it raised their record to 4-9, no longer in the running for the worst team in the league.

Rookie sensation quarterback Justin Herbert showed once again why he will be voted Rookie of the Year with elite passing statistics: 36 of 44 for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Even more important, the rookie showed his veteran teammates how to win a nail-biter of a game. Taking over with just 30 seconds to go and 75 yards from the goal line, he completed three straight passes – the biggest a 25-yard bullet to Tyron Johnson on the right sideline – that got them within field goal range with 2 seconds to go. Michael Badgley then kicked a 43-yarder clean through the uprights as time expired.

After losing so many games this year to last second field goals, it had to feel great for the Chargers to break the other team’s heart for once.

The win lifted the team’s record to 4-9, and could very well be their last triumph of the year. They finish out the season by playing a very good Las Vegas team in sin city, a pretty good Denver team at So-Fi Stadium, and Super Bowl Champs Kansas City at KC. Denver at home looks like their only realistic shot at one more win. 

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor. ER

 

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