A tale of two contenders

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The Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers are the crown jewels of the league. Both lead their respective conferences, both will have homecourt advantage through their conference Finals, both are elite.

And Wednesday they provide a fascinating cross-examination of one another.

The Lakers mailed one in in Atlanta, getting wiped off the map by the Hawks 109-92. It was not pretty. The Lakers have very little to blame. It wasn’t a matchup problem. It wasn’t a back to back. It was the tail end of a road trip, but still. To be down by double digits nearly the entire second half is pretty incredible for a team many consider to still be the best in the league. The answer? Even the Hawks announcers knew, the Lakers had no interest in being on the floor tonight.

It’s nothing new for the Lakers, who have lost three of their last five, two by double digits in routs. This team has simply played lazy for the majority of the season, turning it on for select quarters in most games, and yet there they are, top of the standings, top of the world. For all this team’s talent and ability, their effort indicates that they simply do not care about the regular season. I could spout off to you something about how true champions give their all in every game, every contest, but that’s a lie.

This is the NBA, and 82 game death march, and only the strongest survive, sure, but part of being strong is knowing when to drag your feet to conserve strength. The Lakers just happen to be dragging their feet, occasionally coming to a complete stop and getting trod over. Even the most confident Laker fan has to wonder how much is simple boredom and how much is actual problems with the team, most notably their play inside. They’ve earned the faith of the acolytes, but they’d better deliver at the altar.

Meanwhile, the Cavs let the Bucks who, no lie, they could very well end up seeing in the second round, hang around for 48 minutes, needing a LeBron James steal on the last possession off a horrible Luke Ridnour pass to ice it. This despite a 45-9 free throw advantage for the Cavs, at home. What’s more, if you watched the game, the Cavs were plugged into this one. While the Lakers were FedExing theirs in, the Cavs were locked in, putting forth the same effort that’s gotten them where they’re at. Yet the result was still in doubt, even with everything that was in their favor.

Last year the Cavs blistered the regular season, torching their way into the Conference Finals, laughing and dancing all the way. And all they got for it was a lousy t-shirt that said “Dwight Howard WUZ HERE.” And a win’s better than a loss. But so much of a team’s success depends on the ability to “turn it on” and get hot at the right time. Peak too early and you’re Cleveland last year. Peak too late and you’re the Pistons nearly every year in the 2000’s.

We’ve got two contenders who are still the favorites. Two titans who are still the Lords of their conferences. But to pretend that the Lakers loss is meaningless is as shortsighted as putting too much stock in it and equally foolish. And to assert that all is well with Cleveland because they got the W is to forget their history, and to ignore that the Lakers got blown out, but they also didn’t give anything, either.

Magic Johnson shrugs off concern about Lonzo Ball realty series

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Lonzo Ball has yet to play in one NBA game, yet he has his own signature shoe line, and he — along with his father LaVar Ball and the rest of his family — have their own reality show on FaceBook. Lonzo told me he doesn’t foresee this show, nor his bombastic father, being a problem with his teammates or on the court.

Magic Johnson agrees with that. At least for now.

The head of Lakers’ basketball operations said as training camp opened that he’s not worried about the show Ball in the Family being a distraction. If it is, he’ll step in, he told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

“Only time I am going to concern myself with what [Lonzo] does off the court is if it is affecting his play on the court,” Johnson said at the Lakers’ media day when asked about Ball’s reality Facebook series, “Ball in the Family.”

“Right now, I think it is awesome,” Johnson said. “His family is great. They came out Saturday, we had a big Laker picnic. … His dad is wonderful with me, and I am cool with him. … I think [Lonzo] is tired of all this [hype]. He is just like me; I just want to play and I think he wants to play, and then Saturday night [for the Lakers’ preseason opener], sold out, in Anaheim, wow!”

It’s Magic’s job to put a positive spin on things.

That said, he’s right. The Lakers (and every NBA team) have dealt with overinvolved parents before and know how to create some space for the player to focus on the game. Locker rooms have a way of sorting themselves out in these kinds of situations. Plus, the Lakers have been down the reality show road before (when Lamar Odom married Khloe Kardashian), and while that had an ugly ending, it wasn’t for lack of Lakers’ players and others in the organization trying to step in and help. (Odom just wasn’t yet in a place to accept help.)

Soon LaVar will be focused on his other sons and Lonzo, who appears practiced at tuning his father out and focusing on what is in front of him, will have the grind of the NBA schedule to worry about.

Former NBA player Chuck Person named in college basketball bribery scandal

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The recruitment of major college athletes — and then the steering of the handful that get to go pro to shoe companies and agents — is a sleazy business. It makes HBO’s “The Duece” look like Disneyland. It’s something sports fans know but largely turn a blind eye to until it forces its way into the headlines.

It turned up in the headlines Tuesday when four college assistant coaches from major universities were charged by federal prosecutors in a bribery scandal along with a representative of Adidas and others to steer players to specific agents or a financial handler.

Former NBA Rookie of the Year Chuck Person, now an assistant coach at Auburn, was among those named in the scandal.

Person is making headlines because he’s the biggest name in the scandal. He is charged with accepting approximately $91,500 from a business manager, who has flipped and is working with prosecutors. This “business manager, offered bribes to Person to steer players toward his services, as well as another person charged in the scandal.

Person told prosecutors he gave $18,500 of the money he took to two players’ families, according to the filings.

Person was the No. 4 pick in the 1986 NBA draft and went on to win Rookie of the Year, followed by a 13-year NBA career. He made $22.9 million over the course of his career.

PBT Podcast: Cavaliers, Bucks, Central Division Preview with Dan Feldman

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LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers remain the team to beat in the East — I’m not picking against his team to win the Eastern Conference until someone beats them. This year’s Cavaliers may be deeper than previous years.

However, much of the Central Division is intriguing this season. Milwaukee is a team that, on paper, should take a step forward, but never seem to do that two years in a row. Still, they have Giannis Antetokounmpo and that makes them must watch. Detroit has one of the best centers in the game in Andre Drummond, and they have Marcus Smart on the roster now, but can Reggie Jackson bounce back? Then there are the Bulls and Pacers, both of whom are rebuilding.

Kurt Helin and Detroit-based Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down the Central Division in this latest PBT Podcast.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Reports: Dwyane Wade “leaning heavily” toward joining Cavaliers

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This race may have been decided before it ever started.

While Miami has the draw of home, and Paul George and Russell Westbrook have come hard at him, it seems Dwyane Wade always knew where he wanted to be after Chicago — reunited with LeBron James. Just now in Cleveland. From Joe Vardon of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Dwyane Wade is leaning heavily toward the Cavaliers as his new team once he clears waivers and may have already decided on a reunion with LeBron James, league sources with knowledge of Wade’s thinking told cleveland.com…

Wade has given no indication publicly what he will do, and at least three teams — the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, and his old team the Miami Heat — are interested in him. His agent is taking calls from those teams and others, and Wade told the Associated Press he would do his due diligence as well.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN confirmed this.

This is not a shock.

What does Wade want in a destination? A chance to make another run at a ring, minutes, and a comfort level with the organization. Cleveland provides all of those, plus easy access to the Gravy Fries at Greenhouse Tavern (which may not be on Wade’s in-season approved list by his nutritionist).

Even without Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers are and should be the favorite to come out of the East, then take their swings at the Warriors (or whoever comes out of the West, I feel obligated to write just to be nice to the folks in Houston and Oklahoma City). The Cavaliers are smack in the middle of the NBA’s second tier. Wade averaged an efficient 18.3 points per game for the Bulls last season, and he can for stretches still dial-up his vintage self and dominate games.

Wade would probably start at the two over J.R. Smith, and even if he came off the bench he could get just about all the minutes his aging knees will handle. That said, I’m not sure the Cavs can play Wade and Derrick Rose together, particularly during the playoffs, due to spacing and defensive issues. And obviously, with his good friend LeBron there, Wade has comfort with the organization (just don’t expect him to sign more than a one-year deal).

This was always the most likely outcome, Wade and LeBron together again for one more run.