NBA

Kawhi to the Clippers: The 'big twos' in a much-changed NBA

By Sports Desk July 06, 2019

The NBA is going to look quite different in 2019-20.

After leading the Toronto Raptors to their first title, Kawhi Leonard will reportedly team up with Paul George at the Los Angeles Clippers next season.

It is a move that will reignite the rivalry with a much-changed Los Angeles Lakers, while the Golden State Warriors have seen Kevin Durant jump ship and move to the Eastern Conference.

We look at the teams with a 'big two' following a series of movements in an incredible offseason.

 

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

It was a big surprise when the Clippers took defending champions the Warriors to Game 6 in the playoffs, but they will undoubtedly be a better team next season.

The additions of Leonard and six-time All-Star George – although the latter came at a high price that included sending Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and five first-round draft picks, four of which are unprotected, and two pick swaps to the Oklahoma City Thunder – have created a new force in the Western Conference that will be looking to contend straight away.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Despite finally pulling off the acquisition of Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans, the Lakers freed up enough cap space for a run at Leonard.

However, they were unable to seal a deal with the NBA Finals MVP and will instead look to improve on LeBron James' disappointing first season by forming a truly formidable duo with Davis.

BROOKLYN NETS

Durant ruptured his Achilles in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, but it did not lead to a reduction in interest in the Warriors star.

The 2014 MVP decided to end his time at Golden State and team up with Kyrie Irving at the Brooklyn Nets, who consequently captured two of the three biggest free agents on the market to step up their rebuild several notches.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

It looked as though the Warriors would dominate again when they signed DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year deal in the last offseason, despite the center being sidelined by an Achilles injury.

Cousins has not returned and with Durant out the door, Golden State will be relying on the backcourt tandem of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson – reportedly on a five-year max contract – though trading for D'Angelo Russell could lighten the load.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

Having lost out to the Miami Heat in their reported pursuit of Jimmy Butler, the Rockets will go again with James Harden and Chris Paul leading the charge.

General manager Daryl Morey rejected reports of a rift between Harden and Paul, though he will be keen for the team to start winning as early as possible following a sluggish start in 2018-19.

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

The Blazers made a stunning run to the Western Conference Finals before being swept by the Warriors.

They will hope to go one better after tying Damian Lillard down to a four-year contract extension in the offseason, ensuring his partnership with fellow sharpshooter CJ McCollum will continue.

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    Having started on the right, Gareth Bale drifted to the lift, cavorted into space and set up Karim Benzema. One-nil to Real Madrid.

    Football seems a simple game at times.

    It would be doing a disservice to Bale to dismiss his role in this goal as entirely straightforward. The pace he used to reach Marcelo's throughball, the speed of close control that left David Costas spinning on the spot, the weight of cross to give Benzema an easy finish – it was all of the highest quality.

    It also showed why Zinedine Zidane was correct to put faith in Bale to deliver in this LaLiga opener at Celta Vigo, despite the prolonged, exasperating uncertainty over his future. From benchwarmer at the end of last season, to Zidane telling everyone it would be better for Bale to leave in July, to a transfer to Jiangsu Suning that never happened, to a place back in the starting line-up for the first game of the new season – it's been a chaotic three months.

    That's the issue with Bale, of course: everything about him seems to get more complicated – and more dramatic – in the inexorable scrutiny in which he lives his life.

    Coaches everywhere have specific ideas that mean certain players become surplus to requirements, but Zidane versus Bale has sometimes been billed as a spat so venomous it's left poison dripping from the dressing-room walls. Footballers like to do things in their spare time apart from play football, like have a game of golf; when Bale picks up his irons, it's considered tantamount to a betrayal of professional decency. That's how it can feel from the outside, which maybe gives you an indication of why Bale so rarely bothers speaking out in public. Those waters can't get much muddier.

    The truth of Bale's position at Madrid is probably less complicated than some think – and that is a good summary of what makes Bale the footballer so effective. It's why he was fleetingly impressive at Balaidos on Saturday in a battling 3-1 win, even if Madrid as a collective sometimes looked little better than the ragged bunch who shipped seven goals to Atletico Madrid last month.

    Bale's assist was borne of him being as direct as possible: running behind the full-back, using a step-over and twist of the body to shake off the marker with the ball still in motion, and crossing into a dangerous zone with that precise left foot. Later in the half, he overtook Lucas Olaza when chasing a long ball despite the defender having close to a three-metre head start. It was an awesome display of speed and fitness from a man who has not exactly had a busy pre-season.

    Moments after Madrid's opener, he was blocking a cross in his own box after racing back to protect the nervy Alvaro Odriozola. That's something he isn't so used to doing, but it came from the same sort of focused approach that makes him so clinical at the other end. You watch, you run, you act – shoot, cross, or, in this case, tackle. This is what Bale offers; it's what he has always offered.

    The issue of his future isn't likely to get any clearer until the transfer window closes on September 2, but this game at least showed what a tremendous asset Bale can be when he is deployed with simple precision. For a coach like Zidane, who freely admits he is not the most pedantic of tacticians, that makes Bale valuable – especially in a Madrid team as muddled as this one.

  • Better than Beckham? Opta numbers suggest Zidane is right to turn back to Bale Better than Beckham? Opta numbers suggest Zidane is right to turn back to Bale

    Gareth Bale looks set to get another chance at Real Madrid after he was named in their starting XI for the opening LaLiga game of the season at Celta Vigo.

    Bale seemed certain to depart Madrid after six seasons with coach Zinedine Zidane, whom the Wales star has a rocky relationship with, making it clear during pre-season he wanted the forward to leave.

    But, after a move to Jiangsu Suning in the Chinese Super League collapsed and no other realistic suitors emerged, Bale has been reintegrated into the Madrid squad.

    The Cardiff-born forward has consistently delivered across a trophy-laden spell, but he often lived in the shadow of the imperious Cristiano Ronaldo – who was worshipped above all others at the Santiago Bernabeu before his departure to Juventus last year – and suffered with injuries.

    There is no club in world football with higher expectations of its players than Madrid and Bale has at times been forced to toil under what many would consider unfair scrutiny and criticism, but an examination of his record in the Spanish capital shows his value.

    Goal return to rival Ronaldo 

    Bale left Tottenham as a once orthodox winger who had blossomed into a goal-scoring force on the flank and has continued that development in Madrid.

    He scored 22 times in all competitions during his first season and added another 80 over the next five to join an exclusive club of players to have hit a century of goals for Los Blancos.

    Among that group is Brazil legend Ronaldo, a beloved figure but one who finished his Madrid career with only two more goals (104) than the oft-maligned Bale's 102. Just 12 others have struck more for a club with a glittering 117-year history.

    Bale has laid on 55 more - more than the talented Isco - during his time in Madrid, and has been responsible for the sixth-most goal involvements in LaLiga, even as the club stuttered to three third-place finishes and a single title.

    Standing tall on Europe's grand stage

    Madrid's success under Zidane has come largely in Europe, for which Bale can take a good portion of credit.

    The Wales international fired his team ahead in the 2014 triumph over rivals Atletico Madrid, notched an assist and a successful spot-kick against the same opposition two years later, and then returned from injury in time for the crushing victory over Juventus in Cardiff in 2017.

    That is all without mentioning his match-winning impact in Kiev.

    Bale scored twice off the bench in 2018, the first a bicycle kick that dented Liverpool's nascent comeback and the second a speculative long-range shot that smashed it into pieces.

    The brace elevated him to what is now a selection of seven players - including Ronaldo - to have struck two goals or more in a Champions League final.

     

    Breaking new ground for British footballers

    Criticism of Bale for failing to communicate with the media in Spanish dwarfed the plaudits directed his way for venturing where few of his compatriots had gone before.

    Then aged 24, the Southampton academy product spurned reported interest from Premier League heavyweights Manchester United to become the third Welshman - and first in more than 25 years - to play in LaLiga.

    He is the leading British scorer (78 goals) and appearance maker (155) in the competition's history, relegating David Beckham to second place in the latter category.

    Yet, while Bale has struggled to gain Zidane's acceptance, reportedly in part because of his reluctance to assimilate to life in Spain, the France legend praised Beckham for being a "truly great professional" as recently as 2013.

    That was despite him once admitting his "friendship with David is little. On the pitch, we understand each other perfectly, but as I don't speak English and he doesn't speak Spanish we are a little bit lost."

    Bale might justifiably feel his efforts deserve greater affection - but now he has another chance to win supporters and Zidane over.

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