NBA Playoffs Celtics Cavs Game 5: Let's not overlook the return of the Celtics' horsemen

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pierce.jpgI understand the reaction. I had the same. Shock. Disappointment. Disbelief. It’s not about who you root for. LeBron James performing at a high level? It’s good for the NBA. It’s good for the playoffs. It’s good for the sport. And his monumental failure last night left a lot of basketball fans feeling betrayed, and left the media baying like wolves at the edge of the woods, waiting for the last fires to die out in Game 6.

But beyond all that, we’ve got to take a moment and see, very clearly, that this Celtics team, at least right now, is everything they have said they were.

They told us not to worry when they looked old, weak, and vulnerable in the regular season. They said they would turn it on, that they were just bored, that they could and would show up. They said they were the real contenders and that all the media attention elsewhere was misguided and misplaced.

And they have been right, so far.

The Celtics, as it was in 2008, start with their defense. And while LeBron James had ample opportunities he simply dismissed outright in Game 5, the Celtics gave him good reason to shut it down. Receive the ball on the perimeter, and face a primary defender set at the arc and a second one just to the inside, with a third ready to spring up from the low block. They had the book on James, and they executed it. This is not easy.

It takes discipline, devotion, and a system of rigorous principles. He beats the first two men? Foul. Hard. Make them reset or shoot free throws. Whatever it takes to deter him. Don’t worry about the fouls, we’ve got enough bigs.

Meanwhile, they made Mo Williams into a joke. Williams, a former All-Star point guard, couldn’t dribble. And that’s not an exaggeration. The Celtics converged on Williams on any probe inside and either forced a turnover or a wild exit pass to reset the offense. And that meant the Cavs had less than 10 seconds usually to execute their offense.

Much will be said of James’ terrible offensive performance, but let’s not overlook what the Celtics did to the Cavs’ much ballyhooed defense. Rondo wasn’t even needed in the first half. And when he was needed in the second, he delivered. The Celtics beat them in every way possible Kevin Garnett is still a long, tall, lanky former-MVP who can nail turnarounds and hook shots as long as a seven footer isn’t defending him. Ray Allen? That spring around two slip screens, catch-and-shoot? That’s as reliable as 7-11. Always open. Allen’s dedication to his jumpshooting craft is paying off, and the Cavs’ simply have had no answer. But all that was still survivable until the Truth showed up.

Pierce did it all last night, nailing the elbow jumper he’s known for, taking threes in transition, dropping low for pump-fake easy shots, the works. When Pierce, Allen, and KG are firing? That team is damn near unstoppable. When Rondo’s doing it, too? You can take out the near. Just unstoppable.

And that’s all before you get to a bench. The Celtics’ bench is shakey. Has been all season. But they need so little that to get the performances they’ve gotten in the playoffs from Glen Davis, Tony Allen, and even, to some degree, Rasheed Wallace, just adds to their danger.

There’s no telling how this team will match up with the Magic if they manage to win Game 6 or 7. But last year Paul Pierce said on Twitter that the Magic were poodles and the Celtics were Rottweilers. That was dismissed earlier this season as delusional.

Turns out that when the chain’s off, the bite is worse than the bark.

Report: Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson kept in dark on Lakers’ DeMarcus Cousins trade discussions

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Lakers owner Jeanie Buss wielded her power, installing Magic Johnson as President of Basketball Operations and ousting Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak from the front office.

Why did she drop the hammer today?

It wasn’t just that Jim Buss and Kupchak failed to trade for DeMarcus Cousins. It’s how they internally managed negotiations with the Kings, who ultimately sent Cousins to the Pelicans.

Bill Reiter of CBSSports.com:

One source close to the situation said Kupchak and Jeanie Buss had not spoken since Nov. 1, despite her role as president of basketball operations and the power that gave her to fire Kupchak, and that her brother had resorted to communicating with his sister only through lawyers. The same source said Jeanie never was informed of a potential DeMarcus Cousins trade over the weekend and described a chaotic scene in which Jim Buss insisted low-level basketball officials “vote” on the proposed deal while Jeanie and Magic were left in the dark.

Jeanie allowed this culture by indulging Jim’s silly timeline pledge. That led to too many desperate tactics, even when he wasn’t so desperate to save his job.

She also exacerbated these issues by hiring Johnson as an advisor and then watching him repeatedly spout off about being in charge. Think Jim Buss and Kupchak were eager to answer to and be evaluated by someone gunning for their jobs?

This doesn’t mean Jim Buss and Kupchak handled the situation well, but chaos breeds chaos. There’s plenty of blame to spread around for the Lakers’ predicament.

Jeanie Buss and Johnson should have a better working relationship. At least it won’t face the same pressures as the siblings’ partnership.

 

Report: Kobe Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, leads list of Lakers’ GM candidates

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 26:  Agent Rob Pelinka talks with Kobe Bryant during the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional Final at Honda Center on March 26, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Magic Johnson is now the Lakers’ President of Basketball Operations, and he has said his first call will be to Kobe Bryant.

Maybe that’s just to get the number of Kobe’s agent, Rob Pelinka.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Pelinka is still an agent, and Arn Tellem is a former agent who now works for the Pistons. Agents are becoming trendier picks for front-office jobs since Warriors general manager Bob Myers blazed the trail.

If the Lakers are willing to spend big, Neil Olshey — who previously worked in Los Angeles with the Clippers — would be a good choice. A large salary could pull him from Portland.

Kevin Pritchard or Peter Dinwiddie could be fine if the Lakers aren’t willing to make a mega-offer good enough to lure a sitting general manager. Chris Grant might bring baggage.

As Johnson has acknowledged, he needs a general manager more savvy in the nuances of the salary cap. Any of these names would qualify. It’s about finding the very best person for the job, because Johnson needs all the help he can get.

Report: Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak tried to save their jobs by trading for DeMarcus Cousins

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 12:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings in action against the Los Angeles Lakers at Golden 1 Center on December 12, 2016 in Sacramento, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Lakers reportedly refused to include Brandon Ingram in a trade for DeMarcus Cousinsat least until it was too late.

The Kings traded Cousins to the Pelicans, and Magic Johnson’s takeover of the Lakers’ front office ousted Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak.

Related?

Sam Amick of USA Today:

I like Ingram, but I value Cousins more. Ingram has shown only flashes of reaching stardom, which, to be fair, is all you can reasonably ask of the 19-year-old. Cousins is a guaranteed star, because he already is one.

From the moment he declared his intention to get the job, it seemed Johnson would run the front office. But the timing — two days before the trade deadline — is a little curious. If Jeanie Buss were set on hiring him, she should have done it weeks ago to let him get systems running before the deadline. If she were unsure, perhaps Jim Buss and Kupchak failing to deal for Cousins was the final straw.

There’s a reasonable case the Lakers were right to hold Ingram over Cousins. Look what Sacramento got for Cousins. NBA teams clearly didn’t think so highly of him.

But if Jim Buss were willing to trade Ingram for Cousins and failed to get the trigger pulled, that speaks to larger issues in process. And that, more than anything, explained why Jim Buss needed to go.

The Lakers might not have shook up their front office today for the right reasons, but it can still work out for them.

Lakers name Magic Johnson President of Basketball Operations

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 15:  Magic Johnson attends a ceremony honoring Jackie Robinson before the game between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on April 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  All players are wearing #42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Magic Johnson essentially publicly anointed himself in charge of the Lakers’ front office.

Now, the Lakers are actually giving him the job.

Lakers release:

Los Angeles Lakers Governor Jeanie Buss announced today that the team has named Earvin “Magic” Johnson as President of Basketball Operations. In addition, General Manager Mitch Kupchak has been relieved of his duties, effective immediately. Furthermore, Jim Buss will no longer hold his role as Lakers Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations.

“Today I took a series of actions I believe will return the Lakers to the heights Dr. Jerry Buss demanded and our fans rightly expect,” Jeanie Buss said. “Effective immediately, Earvin Johnson will be in charge of all basketball operations and will report directly to me. Our search for a new General Manager to work with Earvin and Coach Luke Walton is well underway and we hope to announce a new General Manager in short order. Together, Earvin, Luke and our new General Manager will establish the foundation for the next generation of Los Angeles Lakers greatness.”

“It’s a dream come true to return to the Lakers as President of Basketball Operations working closely with Jeanie Buss and the Buss family,” said Earvin “Magic” Johnson. “Since 1979, I’ve been a part of the Laker Nation and I’m passionate about this organization. I will do everything I can to build a winning culture on and off the court. We have a great coach in Luke Walton and good young players. We will work tirelessly to return our Los Angeles Lakers to NBA champions.”

Jeanie Buss added, “I took these actions today to achieve one goal: Everyone associated with the Lakers will now be pulling in the same direction, the direction established by Earvin and myself. We are determined to get back to competing to win NBA championships again.”

Regarding Mitch Kupchak, Jeanie Buss stated, “We are grateful for the many contributions Mitch has made to the Lakers over the years and we wish him all the best.”

With regard to fellow owner and brother, Jim Buss, Ms. Buss said, “Jim loves the Lakers. Although he will no longer be responsible for basketball personnel decisions, he is an owner of this team and we share the same goal: returning the Lakers to the level of greatness our father demanded. Our fans deserve no less.”

In addition to the changes made within the basketball department, the Lakers also announced they have parted ways with John Black who had been the Lakers Vice President of Public Relations. Chief Operating Officer Tim Harris will immediately begin a search for a replacement. Jeanie Buss added, “We thank John for his many years of service.”

This closes an ugly chapter in which Jeannie Buss named Johnson as an advisor, and then he went about publicly trashing Jim Buss and Kupchack while evaluating them for her and clamoring for their front-office power.

Now, the real work begins. And that doesn’t mean calling Kobe Bryant.

Johnson inherits a team with plenty of young talent: D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac. That’s a great starting point.

But the Lakers also face significant hurdles back to the top.

They lose their 2017 and 2019 first-round picks if their 2017 first-round pick doesn’t land in the top three. The Lakers have the NBA’s third-worst record. In the past, Johnson has expressed an affinity for tanking.

The Lakers also have the burdensome contracts of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Those make it tough to clear cap space to sign a star.

At least they can trade Lou Williams, who’s having a special season. The deadline is Thursday, so Johnson must hit the ground running.

These conditions are the effects of Jim Buss’ misguided pledge to jolt the Lakers back to contending. Their shortsighted moves and even bigger dreams backfired so spectacularly, they backed into several high draft picks — and at least chose well. While Kupchak’s overall tenure was positive, his approach had grown stale.

The Lakers needed a change in management. I’m just not convinced Johnson was the solution.

Would they have hired him if he didn’t play for them? Probably not. Does his playing experience with the Lakers specifically, as opposed to any team, better prepare him for this job? Probably not.

But even if Johnson were hired for the wrong reasons, he can still succeed.

He thrived in business after retirement by putting the right people around him, and he can do that here. Johnson obviously knows basketball, but managing a roster and all the salary-cap complexities is a different animal. He needs staff, including a general manager, more familiar with that.

Johnson will be the franchise’s new smiling face. But, for this to truly work, Johnson will have to build a winner the old-fashioned way: With savvy drafting, trading and signing.