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Blake Griffin has become the second biggest sports star in L.A., behind Kobe Bryant. Photo by Jason Lewis Clipper playoff hopes, the Carmelo Anthony saga continues and a look at the NBA’s hottest team.By Michael Brown, Sentinel Sports Writer Are the Clippers playoff material? After the perennial laughingstock of the NBA got off to a 5-21 start this season, the words “playoff” and “Clippers” weren’t words anyone thought would be used in the same sentence.But coach Vinny Del Negro’s team is slowly changing perceptions and bolstering its place in the Western Conference standings, due to winning seven of 10 games. Of course, that was before we all knew just how special rookie Blake Griffin was.Griffin’s stellar play was on display again during the Clippers’ latest win Saturday night against the Golden State Warriors, 113-109. Griffin flirted with a triple-double scoring 30 points, grabbing 18 rebounds and dishing eight assists.Griffin has emerged as the second biggest sports star in L.A. behind Kobe Bryant--but his teammate--Eric Gordon, is also quietly becoming an all-star caliber player and prolific scorer.Gordon is eight in the NBA in scoring (24.1 ppg) and has developed into a better all-around player. Throughout his first two years, Gordon would recklessly jack up shots. However, Del Negro, a former guard, has done a good job of stressing shot selection. Gordon is 11th in the NBA in free throw attempts overall and attacks the basket regularly.During the Clippers’ upswing, they’ve beaten the likes of the Miami, the Lakers and the Denver--proving they have the talent to compete. But they’ve also dropped games to also-rans such as Golden State and Houston.With a 17-26 record going into Tuesday night’s game (Jan. 25) against Dallas, the Clippers have a small margin for error. Portland, the current eight-seed in the West, is 25-21.Fortunately, the bottom of the conference is weaker than years past and 40 to 45 wins may nab the No. 8 seed. If the Clippers have playoff aspirations however, they must improve in a few categories.They have to become respectable on the road. The Clippers loss at Portland last Thursday dropped them to 3-13 away from Staples Center.Keeping Baron Davis healthy is a must. Although rookie point guard Eric Bledsoe has shown flashes of one day becoming an elite player--he’s not ready to lead a team. Davis’ inspired play has ignited the team.Another improved player, center DeAndre Jordan has helped Griffin on the boards and been a surprising, though inconsistent, scoring option in the post. Jordan’s improved play has also made Chris Kaman expendable and potential trade bait if the Clippers can find a taker.Jordan’s style and ability to run with Griffin makes him a better fit. Kaman’s a traditional, plodding big man who plays with his back to the basket. Del Negro’s running style is more conducive for the Clippers personnel.Making the playoffs is probably a long shot for the Clips. They dug too big a hole at the beginning of the season--but eclipsing last season’s win total (29-53) isn’t far fetched.Carmelo deal off, for now “We’re moving on,” said New Jersey Nets GM Billy King last Wednesday, after his team’s owner, Russian multi-billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, held a press conference announcing he was exiting the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes.The proposed and much speculated deal involving Anthony being traded to the Nets ended after five months of talks. Reportedly, Prokhorov became disillusioned by Denver’s demands, and frustrated by the length of the process.Prokhorov pulled the plug on the negotiations reportedly one day before he was scheduled to meet with Anthony in an attempt to sell the all-star on the benefits of playing for the Nets.Prokhorov’s decision to nix the trade talks are suspect at best. I don’t think it had anything to do with Denver asking for rookie Derrick Favors or several first-round picks.‘Melo wouldn’t guarantee signing an extension to play in New Jersey if traded, simple and plain.The prospect of “renting” Anthony for half a season wasn’t appealing to Nets management. Anthony’s desire to play with the Knicks isn’t a secret. Even Prokhorov said during the press conference that Anthony would eventually play for New York. So where do the major parties stand?Well, for Denver, the answer is probably quicksand. They have a superstar on their roster that will be a free agent and is going to bolt out of town at the first opportunity. I’ve been writing for weeks that they’ve played their hand wrong--and now they’re on the brink of becoming what Cleveland is sans LeBron James: a star-less small market team that no one cares about.As for the Nets, Prokhorov’s best bet is to stop talking about winning a title in five years and draft well, support Avery Johnson as head coach and move to Brooklyn. Luring big ticket free agents has already proved that it’s not going to be New Jersey’s ticket out of the lottery.And the Knicks are in the best position. Even if they added Anthony this season, they aren’t a championship contender. Instead of trading players such as Landry Fields and Danilo Gallinari, the Knicks should sign Anthony during free agency.With the pieces they already have in place, and if New York can pry Chris Paul out of New Orleans, they can then challenge for a title.Good news on two fronts for the Hornets
Chris Paul has regained his All Star form and has the New Orleans Hornets in contention in the West. Photo by Jeff Lewis Don’t look now, but another contender besides the Spurs in the West for the Lakers’ coveted title may be the New Orleans Hornets.The Hornet’s nine-game win streak is the best in the league and their 30-16 record is third best in the West. Dallas’ recent struggles allowed the Hornets to pass them last week.The Hornets have been quietly flying below the NBA radar by winning games based on tenacious defense rather than flash and fast breaks. Their league best defense (90.7 points allowed) was on display last Thursday in Atlanta.The Hornets put the clamps on Atlanta during a 100-59 win. The Hornets held the Hawks to 29 percent (29 of 73) shooting from the field.New Orleans looks like they’ve returned to where they were three years ago when they were a contender in the West, due in part to finally being healthy at key positions. Point guard Chris Paul is back in all-star form and forward David West leads the team with 19 points per game.West is joined in the frontcourt by defensive standouts Trevor Ariza and center Emeka Okafor. In fact, if not for Dwight Howard patrolling the paint down in Orlando--Okafor would be the NBA’s defensive player of the year.With their mixture of size and speed, I don’t think New Orleans could beat the Lakers or San Antonio in a series--but they could present problems.On another note, it was announced Monday by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Orleans civic leaders that the Hornets had reached their attendance benchmark, which will allow the team to stay in New Orleans for at least another season.The financially troubled franchise was purchased by the NBA in December of last year for an estimated $300 million. League Commissioner David Stern said the NBA would look for a local buyer to keep the team in New Orleans.
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