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The most desperate team in the NBA
Allow us to conclusively tell you who it is and why
The Phoenix Suns entered the NBA in 1968-69 and still haven't won a championship.
The Indiana Pacers and the Brooklyn (formerly New York and then New Jersey) Nets joined the league in 1976-77 via the NBA/ABA merger and are both still chasing their first taste of NBA supremacy.
The Utah Jazz have been in the NBA since the 1974-75 season, once you include their New Orleans years, and are likewise still searching for championship trophy No. 1 with their 50th campaign underway.
All those teams are among the 10 franchises on the current NBA map yet to experience title glory, but the title of NBA's Most Desperate realistically belongs to one clear-cut club we haven't mentioned yet.
With apologies to the Suns, Pacers, Nets and Jazz — as well Charlotte, Orlando, Minnesota, Memphis and New Orleans (in their Pelicans incarnation) — it can only be the LA Clippers.
The payroll they've carried in the Steve Ballmer Era, combined with the copious amounts of draft capital that the Clippers have surrendered to assemble the team they have now, pretty much clinches it.
Yet I can't stop wondering: What happens at season's end if the current roster can't get it done and extends a championship drought that officially reaches back to my beloved Buffalo Braves' inaugural season of 1970-71?
It took trading Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to Oklahoma City, packaged with too many future draft picks to list, for the Clippers to be able to pair Kawhi Leonard with Paul George in the summer of 2019. Now in their fifth season together, after combining to win just three rounds in the playoffs in the span, Kawhi and PG-13 have been joined by James Harden, who cost the Clippers one more unprotected first-round pick (in 2028) and two pick swaps even though there were no other apparent Harden suitors for Philadelphia to talk trade with.
It's way too soon to judge Ballmer and Co.'s latest all-in gamble after Monday night's rough debut at Madison Square Garden. Harden, to be fair, was essentially playing his first full-speed basketball since May. Yet what's already clear is that these Clippers have lots of work to do and need much to go right after joining a surprisingly growing group of aspiring contenders who are trying to win with small-ball schemes at a time that the league is ruled by the Nikola Jokić-led Denver Nuggets.
Golden State is off to a 6-2 start but is a very small squad. Dallas is off to a wholly unexpected 6-1 launch but is also exceedingly small. The Clippers are starting Harden alongside Leonard, George, Russell Westbrook and Ivica Zubac ... and just lost some depth from a frontcourt that was already being questioned when Mason Plumlee came away with a sprained left knee in Harden's debut.
Even if Clippers coach Tyronn Lue ultimate heeds calls to move Westbrook to a sixth-man role and give Harden more of the ball, based on the idea that he's the top-shelf playmaker that Leonard and George have for so long needed beside them, it is more than reasonable to ask: Can even a Clippers team that reaches its ceiling really deal with a Jokić or a Giannis Antetokounmpo or a Joel Embiid? Or even the Boston Celtics and their Kristaps Porzingis/Al Horford center tandem?
I initially talked myself into the Harden trade for the Clippers because A) they acquired Harden without surrendering Terance Mann or Norm Powell, B) they also acquired P.J. Tucker (who I still believe in as a useful frontcourt contributor for a playoff team), C) Lue is the rare coach who can manage such a high-wattage (and combustible) collective and D) they've traded away so much already that I doubt that retaining the draft assets they just surrendered could really save this team in the unlikely event that it decided — on the brink of moving into the sparkly new Intuit Dome next season — that they want to initiate a teardown and start over.
They are all-in now to such a wild degree that surely has even the Mat Ishbia-owned Suns, fresh off assembling a Kevin Durant/Devin Booker/Bradley Beal core that has yet to appear in a single game together, saying Dang.
I made the joke on a recent #thisleague UNCUT podcast that the Clippers now have the best team in CIF history with their assemblage of four former Southern California high school stars. Yet the reason I keep saying that Harden is the only clear-cut winner in the trade is because only he can say definitively that he got what he wanted here.
The Sixers have to acquire a properly fitting third star alongside Embiid and Tyrese Maxey with the asset haul they brought back for Harden before they can move into the winners' stratosphere. And the Clippers — with the oft-injured Leonard and George possessing player options for next season and Harden and Westbrook on expiring deals — will likely be forced into re-signing at least three of the four to ensure they have a competitive team in Year 1 of their new home. No matter how this season plays out.
There is understandable skepticism in numerous corners that Harden, at 34, can be the guy who helps gets the Clippers off the NBA's dreaded list of The Unfulfilled Ten. Especially after the string of messy divorces he initiated in Houston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia to finally secure a SoCal homecoming.
Maybe we should be asking it this way: Are the Clippers really on a pathway now to have a team as good Ballmer’s self-proclaimed “basketball palazzo” will be?
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Still A Kid …
On Saturday I hosted a two-hour extended version of my weekly radio show on 97.1 (FM) The Freak in Dallas from the floor of the Dallas Card Show in Allen, Texas.
So it was a first on multiple fronts for The Saturday Stein Line — going twice as long as any previous show and taking the form of a remote appearance conducted in public alongside a special co-host for the afternoon: 97.1 and Mavericks broadcaster Skin Wade.
It all came with a bonus plan, too: Broadcasting live from a sports card and memorabilia convention featuring more than 700 vendor tables afforded me the chance to spend about three hours after the show returning to the hobby realm for the first time in decades.
I hadn't been to a show like that in years ... so many years that I couldn't remember exactly how long it's been. I loved card collecting through my college years but gradually drifted away from it as adulthood/parenthood/life intervened. My two boys never showed much interest, either, which naturally would have pulled me back in. But I had an absolute, unadulterated blast getting reacquainted with cards new and old. The incurable nostalgist in me naturally spent more time entranced by the cards from the 1970s and '80s that I know best, but it was fun to feel young again.
Also fun: Going as an adult with more financial wherewithal to spend. I didn't want to get too carried away, but I ended up splashing out just shy of $500 on the following dabbles that are all pictured:
$25 on a Panini basketball (rather than soccer) sticker album. It's the 1990-91 maiden NBA sticker album that Panini published and included all 180 stickers on untouched sheets.
$400 on a complete set of supersized 1976-77 Topps NBA cards. The following season (1977-78) was the first set of NBA cards that I actively collected, but I became aware of the oversized set from the year before long after it was actually issued, when an ice cream truck that roamed my neighborhood at some point in 1979(-ish) was for some reason still selling the older cards. I've been obsessed with that set ever since and, after seeing it offered at multiple tables in varying conditions (and different price points), I finally caved at table No. 3 and bought the 144-card full boat.
$60 on six Victor Wembanyama cards for my photo editor Aaron Stein and his younger cousin Liam Stein. Panini says there are 31,324 of this particular Wemby ... and now we have .00019% of them.
There are only five days on the regular-season calendar with no NBA games. In addition to Tuesday's blank schedule designed to keep the focus on Election Day nationwide, there will be no NBA play on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, April 8 (when the NCAA men’s Division I basketball title game takes place) and April 13 (on the day before the final day of the regular season when all 30 teams are in action).
Denver's Nikola Jokić has recorded 108 career triple-doubles in 604 regular-season games. Jokić moved into fourth place in league history with his 108th triple-double Monday night in a victory over New Orleans.
Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, who previously held a share of fourth place with 107 career triple-doubles, needed 1.391 regular-season games to get there. The Lakers' LeBron James also has 107 career triple-doubles in 1,428 regular-season games.
LeBron James is averaging 35.9 minutes per game for the 3-4 Lakers after they came into the season hoping to keep James, who turns 39 on Dec. 30, in the 28-to-30-minute range in his 21st NBA season.
I think I just might have been a courtside witness to the best game Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball has ever played: Ball scored 23 points in the fourth quarter and finished with 30 points. 13 assists and 10 rebounds Sunday night in the Hornets’ rough fall-from-ahead road loss at Dallas. It was just the second triple-double to feature 30 points in franchise history. Trivia time: Can you remember the first?
Portland's Robert Williams III needs surgery on his right knee that could be season-ending and, at a minimum, will almost certainly keep him below 40 games played for the fourth time in his six NBA seasons.
Ten teams scored at least 150 points in a game last season. It has already happened twice this season, with Boston torching Indiana for 155 points on Nov. 1 ... and the Pacers bouncing back Monday night to ring up 152 against Victor Wembanyama and the Spurs.
Indiana’s Rick Carlisle, who earned his 900th NBA coaching victory Monday night, needs 39 more wins to pass to No. 12 Red Auerbach (938) and 45 more to pass his mentor Bill Fitch (944) at No. 11.
Phoenix’s Kevin Durant began the season 518 points away from passing Moses Malone (27,409 career points) for 10th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, according to research from The Associated Press’ Tim Reynolds.
Also within range for Durant … but likely not until next season: No. 9 Carmelo Anthony (28,289) and No. 8 Shaquille O’Neal (28,596).
Trivia answer: The late Anthony Mason scored 31 points in an overtime triple-double for the Hornets during the 1999-2000 season.
Wednesday will be a newsy NBA night in New York with Wembanyama making his first appearance at Madison Square Garden and the Nets playing host to James Harden's return to Brooklyn in The Beard's second game as an LA Clipper.
As mentioned above: Had a blast at the Dallas Card Show last weekend hosting the first-ever live remote show in the history in The Saturday Stein Line. I’m on Saturdays from noon to 1 PM CT on 97.1 (FM) The Freak in Dallas. Join us online by clicking the link embedded in this sentence or via the iHeart radio app to listen on this or on any Saturday ... or catch the podcasted version of the show once it drops via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your pods:
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