NBA

Kawhi to the Clippers: Three teams now contending for Eastern Conference supremacy

By Sports Desk July 06, 2019

The balance of power continues to shift in the NBA, as Kawhi Leonard's decision to join the Los Angeles Clippers makes the league a lot more interesting.

At the beginning of 2018-19, many seemed to believe the road to the NBA Finals ran through the Boston Celtics. Then the Milwaukee Bucks posted the best record in the league just a year removed from finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference. 

But it was the Toronto Raptors who dethroned the
Golden State Warriors in the end, and now they will have a new look without their superstar. Plenty of other teams are hungry for glory and now is the perfect time to strike.

Here are three teams that could now take over the Eastern Conference:

 

Milwaukee Bucks

The Eastern Conference is now wide open, but the Bucks are ahead of the pack. After all, they retained two All-Stars — one being reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Milwaukee underwent a serious transformation under Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer last season. Antetokounmpo has put up historically strong numbers in the paint, but the Bucks were also among the league leaders in three-point attempts.

Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez will likely be constants, but it remains to be seen how the chemistry will be after losing Malcolm Brogdon.

Milwaukee simply have the centrepiece every other team wish they had in Antetokounmpo, so there is no reason to count them out just yet.

Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers may have lost an All-Star-calibre player in Jimmy Butler this offseason, but they will be just fine.

Philadelphia were one circus buzzer-beater away from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals last season and are bringing back plenty of talent in 2019-20. The 76ers flipped Butler to the Miami Heat in exchange for Josh Richardson and lured Al Horford away from the Celtics, giving them what might be the best defensive line-up in basketball.

Small Ball? Philadelphia have never heard of it, as the shortest wingspan on their current roster is 6-10. 

The 76ers' starting group will likely feature Richardson, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. And then there is second-year guard Zhaire Smith, who was voted the most athletic player in the 2018 NBA Draft by his peers but missed most of last season due to an unfortunate allergic reaction.

Philadelphia have size, playmaking, strong defense and four players that could get legitimate All-Star consideration in the coming season. Embiid's questionable health could be a facto but getting a versatile big like Horford that can fill in if he goes down will definitely keep the 76ers in contender conversations.

Brooklyn Nets

Even if Kevin Durant cannot play until 2020, the Nets should be better this season. They lost D'Angelo Russell to the Warriors, but Kyrie Irving can be a considerable upgrade if the pieces come together just right.

Both Russell and Irving are high-usage guards, but Irving is more efficient and poses the kind of threat that makes every player on the opposing team watch him when the ball is in his hands. 

Brooklyn added veterans in DeAndre Jordan and Garrett Temple that should pair nicely with returning pieces like Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris, who was one of the most prolific three-point shooters in 2018-19 — converting 47.4 per cent from beyond the arc.

But the wild card is Caris LeVert, who arguably was the Nets' best player before a leg injury sidelined him last November. The 24-year-old guard was establishing himself as Brooklyn's go-to guy and now he has had a whole offseason to recover after showing flashes of his potential in the 2018-19 playoffs.

Adding Durant to a group like this could prove to be lethal and would certainly make the Nets a force to be reckoned with.

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  • Copa Libertadores final: Back-to-back titles a perfect send-off for 'Barca bound' River boss Gallardo? Copa Libertadores final: Back-to-back titles a perfect send-off for 'Barca bound' River boss Gallardo?

    A shot at the sporting immortality of back-to-back continental titles against a formidable opponent in the form of Flamengo.

    River Plate face a Brazil v Argentina blockbuster in the first Copa Libertadores final to be staged as a one-off game – a change now mired in the logistical nightmare of moving the showpiece from Santiago to Lima at short notice.

    Yet all of this is nothing to fear when compared to the bigger picture.

    "All us River fans are scared that Marcelo Gallardo could leave," midfielder Exequiel Palacios told Infobae.

    "No one wants him to leave. We hope that he'll stay for many more years and keep giving joy to River fans."

    Increasingly, for Palacios, his team-mates and a fervent fanbase, this looks like a forlorn hope.

    Since returning to coach the club he represented across three spells as an attacking midfielder during his playing days, Gallardo has inspired one of the most successful periods in River's decorated history.

    Witheringly nicknamed Las Gallinas by sworn enemies Boca Juniors due to their reputation for choking on the big occasion, River have doubled their number of Libertadores triumphs under Gallardo's leadership, from two to four.

    Number four, of course, arrived unforgettably at Boca's expense last season. River prevailed 5-3 on aggregate after a 3-1 extra-time win in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Santiago Bernabeu – the second leg of the final having been moved to Madrid after Boca's team bus was attacked en route to El Monumental for the originally scheduled fixture.

    If growing speculation is to be believed, it is LaLiga's other major footballing coliseum where Gallardo might soon by plying his trade.

    Barcelona bound?

    "Gallardo will be coach of Barcelona in December," former River midfielder and 1986 World Cup winner Claudio Borghi told TNT Sports this month, in comments unlikely to have been welcomed by under-fire Blaugrana boss Ernesto Valverde. "He is one of the best coaches in the world.

    "[River Plate president Rodolfo] D'Onofrio said he'd only leave by quitting his post, but I know this from a direct source."

    Irrespective of the veracity of Borghi's information, while acknowledging the man himself has sought to quell the rumours, the prospect of Gallardo landing another of the biggest jobs in world football is compelling.

    His record on the big occasion is outstanding, as evidenced by the 11 trophies lifted during his tenure.

    A directive from the River board to focus on continental success has been carried out to the letter, with the 2014 Copa Sudamericana and three Recopas Sudamericana sitting alongside the 2015 and 2018 Libertadores.

    This return has come amid a huge turnover in playing staff – a long-accepted reality for South American teams turning out high-quality football before the prying eyes of European scouts.

    Of the side that won the 2015 Libertadores, only Leonardo Ponzio, Jonatan Maidana, Gonzalo Martinez, Camilo Mayada and Rodrigo Mora remained among the squad that tasted glory in Madrid. The Camp Nou powerbrokers would do well to spot Gallardo's astute ability to rebuild, given their uneven and expensive record in the transfer market over recent years.

    Boca would certainly be delighted to see the back of him. The ultimately futile 1-0 win in this season's Libertadores semi-final second leg at La Bombonera, after going down 2-0 in the initial match, was their first in seven Superclasicos.

    Gallardo's shrewd tactical flexibility was to the fore during last season's final, with a switch from his favoured and fluid 4-4-2 to a back three for the away leg providing extra width that Boca struggled to deal with.

    Injuries in attack forced him into a 4-5-1 for the return, but slick combination play and the feature of midfield runners supplementing the attack remained in fine working order on River's night of nights.

    Admired by Guardiola and Messi

    "What Gallardo has done is unbelievable. He gives them consistency year after year, even though they lose players," Pep Guardiola told TNT last month.

    "I don't understand how he's never nominated for manager of the year. It's as if only Europe exists."

    That seal of approval from a Barcelona great comes alongside a potentially more significant one from Lionel Messi, who included Gallardo behind Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino in his top three when voting for the 2019 Best FIFA Men's Coach award.

    Of course, Barcelona have gone down the route of appointing a coach from Messi's homeland fairly recently and his fellow Rosario native Gerardo Martino finished the 2013-14 season without a major trophy or his job.

    An acclimatisation process would be necessary, not least in terms of week-in, week-out combat in LaLiga. River's superb recent Libertadores record has come at the expense of seriously competing for the Superliga. Key men are routinely rested either side of major knockout matches and their last league success was in 2014, immediately before Gallardo's arrival.

    There would be these and more questions to answer. If he is able to see off Flamengo and lift the third Copa Libertadores of his coaching career, the chances of Gallardo having to provide the answers might increase considerably.

  • How does Chelsea's use of youngsters compare with Europe's other top clubs? How does Chelsea's use of youngsters compare with Europe's other top clubs?

    VAR controversy, Leicester City's swashbuckling style, Liverpool's unrelenting charge to the title – these are all among the most prominent themes of the opening months of the 2019-20 Premier League season.

    But arguably trumping all of them in terms of column inches has been Chelsea's use of young players, with Frank Lampard's return to the club as head coach coinciding with a new-found desire to bring youngsters into the first-team.

    Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori and Christian Pulisic have all featured regularly, while Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James have recently returned from serious injuries.

    Eden Hazard, Graeme Le Saux, Sean Dyche, Roy Hodgson and Petr Cech are just a few of the army of people to lavish Chelsea and Lampard with praise for this philosophy.

    Although it is difficult not to be cynical of Lampard's insistence that he would have had the same approach even if Chelsea were not banned from signing new players, the fact remains they are giving young players a chance.

    But how does their use of under-23 players compare to the rest of the teams in Europe's top five leagues?

    PREMIER LEAGUE

    It might surprise supporters to learn that among Premier League clubs, Chelsea don't lead the way for appearances (60), minutes (4,164) or assists (8) for players who were under 23 on matchday.

    Manchester United have racked up the highest number of matches for players younger than 23 (84), one more than Leicester. The next highest is Bournemouth (67), while Arsenal and Norwich City are also ahead of Chelsea.

    As such, United have given 5,801 minutes of Premier League football to young players, though Leicester lead the way with 6,164 and are also on top in terms of assists (15).

    Chelsea's 20 goals from qualifying players is a division high, however, four more than United. Leicester are the third and final side to reach double figures.

    And the Blues' average starting XI age of 25 years and 115 days is among the youngest, though Bournemouth are ahead on that front (25y 88d).

    LALIGA

    In Spain's top flight, only Real Sociedad (84) and Real Mallorca (68) have given more matches to young players than Chelsea. They're also the only clubs to accumulate more minutes played by youngsters than the Blues (5,341 and 5,944, respectively).

    La Real also top the charts for goals (10), assists (8) and average starting XI age (25y 235d) in Spain, though none of those records better Chelsea's.

    Therefore, it's fair to say LaLiga, renowned for its development of young players, is lagging behind Premier League in that regard at the moment.

    SERIE A

    Chelsea's 60 appearances by young players would put them fourth on those terms in Serie A, with Fiorentina (79), Genoa and AC Milan (both 72) out in front.

    Those three have also given more minutes to under-23s, with Fiorentina (5,837) setting the bar again.

    Genoa have had 11 goals set up by under-23 players, three more than Chelsea, while Milan's average starting XI age (24y 203d) is much lower than Lampard's men.

    But in each of those two parameters, Chelsea would be second in the chart. They would lead for goals from under-23s, with Fiorentina top in Italy on 10.

    BUNDESLIGA

    RB Leipzig (80), Mainz, Schalke (both 70) and Borussia Monchengladbach (63) have been the most open to playing under-23s in the Bundesliga

    Similarly, all four clubs have seen those players feature in more than 4,500 minutes this season – Leipzig unsurprisingly leading the way with 5,259.

    Leipzig are also Chelsea's closest challengers in terms of goals. Their record of 17 may be slightly less than the Blues, but their 11-assist haul - level with Gladbach - takes them to 28 involvements, exactly the same as Lampard's side.

    Julian Nagelsmann's Leipzig are also the youngest side in the Bundesliga, with their starting XI's average age just 24 years and 340 days. Mainz (25y 38d) are the only other top-flight German club to beat Chelsea in this regard.

    LIGUE 1

    France's Ligue 1 is by far the most accessible of the five major leagues for young players, with a total of 1,360 appearances from under-23 players across the 20 clubs, an average of 68 per team.

    In comparison, the Premier League (871) averages 43.55 appearances per club and the Bundesliga's 18 sides afford under-23s 45.28 outings (815 total).

    Nice make up the biggest share of the Ligue 1 appearances with a massive 121, but Lille (116), Lyon (99), Reims (96), Nimes (83), Toulouse (82), Rennes, Bordeaux (both 75), Metz (74), Monaco, Dijon (both 65) and Strasbourg (62) have all allowed youngsters to play more than 60 matches.

    Of course, a key element of this is the lack of funds at many of these clubs and French football in general with the exception of Paris Saint-Germain, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, have entrusted the fewest games (30) to under-23 players in the division.

    Nevertheless, only Nice (24y 41d), Lille (24y 111d) and Lyon (24y 288d) have a younger starting line-up on average than Lampard's Chelsea.

  • Copa Libertadores final: Europe beckons again for rejuvenated Flamengo star Gabigol Copa Libertadores final: Europe beckons again for rejuvenated Flamengo star Gabigol

    When Gabriel Barbosa made his senior debut as a 16-year-old in Neymar's emotional Santos farewell in May 2013, it was anticipated an avalanche of goals and glory would follow.

    Not many would have foreseen that expectation borne out six years later at Flamengo – Santos' opponents that tearful day – who he will hope to inspire to Copa Libertadores glory against defending champions River Plate in Lima on Saturday.

    There were trophies initially and, predictably for a player nicknamed 'Gabigol' for his prolific finishing in the youth ranks, goals. Two Campeonato Paulista titles arrived before a pair of international campaigns of differing success; after a frustrating Copa America Centenario, he helped Brazil claim an eagerly awaited gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. That, and a record of 56 goals in 153 appearances for Santos, convinced Inter to part with a reported €25million and give Gabriel a five-year contract on his 20th birthday.

    Things did not go to plan at San Siro, though. He was used for just 16 minutes during Frank de Boer's abysmal 85-day tenure and continued to figure largely from the bench under Stefano Pioli for the majority of 2016-17. An angry outburst at not being brought on against Sampdoria was followed by an ill-advised walk-out against Lazio, with the game ongoing, after the third substitute was used.

    It was the final straw for Inter and he was shipped out on loan to Benfica. However, his attitude remained an issue. After finding out he was not in the squad for a Primeira Liga match against Vitoria Setubal in November, Gabriel was photographed at a nightclub where he had reportedly been drinking and remained until 06:00 local time on the day of the game.

    Then-Benfica coach Rui Vitoria has since suggested Gabriel arrived at the wrong time and perhaps needed "another context", which he found by cutting his stay at the Estadio da Luz short. After accumulating 106 minutes across four appearances in five months, the Menino da Vila went home to Santos in January 2018.

    Unabashed by his shortcomings across the Atlantic, Gabriel thrived in familiar surroundings. He scored his first hat-trick in a Copa do Brasil clash against Luverdense the following May and struck 18 times in the league, earning recognition as the competition's best striker.

    "It was an important year for me individually. I increased my goalscoring averages and was the top scorer in the Brasileirao and the Copa do Brasil," said Gabriel.

    The striker's displays led to links with Premier League side West Ham, but he remained in Brazil and joined Flamengo for his next loan stint. He has retained the momentum he was desperate to establish at Inter and reached new levels at the Maracana.

    Gabriel has been at his predatory best, scoring a stunning 38 goals in 53 appearances in all competitions as part of Jorge Jesus' formidable, free-flowing attack. The Flamengo fans have become so feverish that a cry of 'Hoje tem gol do Gabigol' – Gabigol is going to score today – was heard when the crowd at the O2 Arena in London hushed as Stefanos Tsitsipas readied a serve in his ATP Finals victory over Dominic Thiem.

    Leading them to a second Libertadores title this weekend would no doubt secure him a place as an icon in the club's history.

    However, questions still remain for Jesus. Gabriel scored the only goal in a victory over Gremio on Sunday but a hot-headed moment earned him two yellow cards in quick succession – the first for berating the assistant referee and the second for sarcastically applauding the initial booking. As he walked off, he provoked the opposition supporters by counting to five on his right hand, a reference to the 5-0 thrashing Jesus' side handed Gremio to book their place in the Libertadores showpiece in Lima.

    "Gabi is the top goalscorer in the league, he wanted to play for many reasons and mainly because he wanted to score goals, but if I knew this would happen I wouldn't have played him," said Jesus, whose side will be crowned champions of Brazil if Palmeiras fail to beat Gremio on Sunday.

    "The situation worries me a lot. I haven't been able to make him a great player emotionally yet, as he is technically and tactically. I haven't done it yet, but I think it has to go little by little.

    "I have time to make him a great player. For example, [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo don't have this aspect in their career."

    Gabriel is by no means the finished article and while he has developed into a mature forward physically, he remains prone to petulance.

    However, he has packed a lot into his career and is still just 23 years old. His performances at Flamengo suggest that with the right man management he is far more likely to make a success of an inevitable second stab at Europe. A positive role in a victory against River will underline that.

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