NBA Playoffs Suns Lakers Game 6: Is everything else for the Suns gravy?

3 Comments

The Suns take the floor tonight for Game 6 versus the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers an underdog. They are considered out-sized, out-talented, and outmatched. But the Suns have shown resiliency in this series, coming back from a dour 0-2 deficit to even the series, then pushing the Lakers to the very wire. The Lakers needed a shot Phil Jackson described as “lucky” from Ron Artest (it was actually just a remarkably heady and well executed shot from the explosive wing) to put the Suns away, at home, and set themselves up for a closeout in Phoenix.

We tend to always put things in perspective after they’ve occurred, and the final minutes of a game tends to be the epitaph of a team’s season. The Spurs were a failed experiment. The Jazz were always a fraud. The Cavaliers were foolhardy in acquiring a top stretch four and one of the greatest centers of all time. The list goes on and on. The latest victim will be the Orlando Magic, who had another terrific regular season and swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs before crashing and burning.

So what will the Suns’ tombstone read, if they don’t manage to force a game seven? We’re not trying to bury the Suns before the three point shooting body is cold, but instead we want to take a moment and put this season in context before they face the best team in the Wast in an elimination game.

The Suns had low expectations coming into this season. They were coming off a lottery appearance, trying to rediscover who they were. Amar’e Stoudemire was on the trade block. There was a world of doubt as to whether they could even return to the playoffs. Steve Kerr was on the hot seat after his two biggest decisions, acquiring Shaquille O’Neal and hiring Terry Porter, were both magnificent failures. It was a season expected to be full of angst and discontent.

Instead?

A return to the fun and gun of the Suns of old, with some improved defense and a focus on rebounding to boot. The Suns did what they did best, spread the ball, enjoy playing basketball, and win games. Still, the doubts persisted. We expected their talent to carry them past a depleted Trailblazers team, and when they lost the first game at home, the talk of the Suns’ style not being able to win in the playoffs (when in fact the only that had been proven is it can’t beat the Conference Champions, particularly the Spurs) started to rumble again.

But they got past Portland, only to face their hated rivals, the Spurs. The Suns spoke of how both teams were difference, that there was no history for them to worry about, but we didn’t buy it. We expected the Spurs’ grinding defense to wear them out, to solve Nash and Stoudemire, and for the Spurs to hit big shots on their way to a victory. Instead, we sat stunned as the Suns raced out to a 2-0 series lead, then took it to the Spurs in San Antonio, and closed them out in a sweep.

Okay, fine, Suns. You had your fun. But this is the big time, the Lakers, the defending champions and the best team in the league. And after two games, we again readied the casket for this Suns team, that looked completely overwhelmed.

But again, they fought back. Amar’e Stoudemire had his best game of the playoffs, and then the bench mob once again showed its teeth. Tie series. Lakers fans were apoplectic. Analysts were simply impressed. This Suns team won’t die. They rallied from down 18 in Game 5 to tie the game before Ron Artest made a game saving play.

But even after that heartbreaking game, after working so hard only to have it disappear, the Suns were unfazed. Steve Nash made comments guaranteeing a Suns win in Game 6. The locker room and subsequent practices were light and upbeat. These guys must be on Prozac. Nothing gets them down.

If the Lakers win tonight, it will be because they were the better team, as they were in the regular season. They spend more money on their All-Star studded roster. They feature a Hall of Famer and several top 20 players on their starting five. They have no excuse for not making the Finals. The Suns? They had no expectations of going this far, no matter what they tell you. But they hung together, played with heart and grit. If they fail to reach the summit, it will not be for lack of effort or heart. They simply won’t have the size and guns to overcome Mount Kobe.

Perhaps that’s the worst part of the playoffs. That so many brilliant careers are tarnished when the other team is simply better. Steve Nash is criticized constantly. “He didn’t deserve two MVPs.” “He can’t play defense.” “He’s not that good.” And yet not only has he played brilliantly, hit huge shots, continued brilliant passing and led this team to the Conference Finals, but he’s done so with a broken nose, a gashed eye, and been bloodied from start to finish. And that’s before we talk about the back pain that forces him to lay down whenever he’s not in the game.

This team has earned your respect. The Lakers being better doesn’t make this Suns team less of a worthy opponent. They’ve taken everything the Lakers can throw at them and come back for more. If they were to win tonight? Anything can happen in a Game 7. If it would shock you to see the Suns in the Finals, you haven’t been paying enough attention to the Suns. It would be stunning for the Lakers not to win the West. Not for the Suns to win it.

This team had nothing more to prove after sweeping Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan into the sea. Pushing LA to a Game 6? Gravy. It’s already been a fantastic season for the Suns. Now we just have to see exactly how much gravy these guys get to add on top.

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)
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
4 Comments

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.

Reports: Bulls telling teams they won’t trade Jimmy Butler

Chicago Bulls guard/forward Jimmy Butler, top, shoots over Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry during the overtime of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, in Chicago. The Bulls won 123-118 in overtime. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
Leave a comment

The Bulls reportedly weren’t making Jimmy Butler available for a trade last month.

As the trade deadline approaches, it seems that hasn’t changed.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

The teams that talked to the Chicago Bulls today were told, “Just about everybody on our roster is available, but Jimmy Butler is not.”

The Bulls are not obliged to stand by that, and there’s no indication they’ve assured Butler anything. If they’re offered a package more valuable than Butler, they’ll trade him.

But that’s a lot of value.

Butler is playing like a superstar, 27 and locked up for two more seasons after this one. Not many teams have the assets to trade for someone like that.

Plus, Chicago could use the designated-veteran-player rule to re-sign him. No other team would hold that advantage if it trades for him.

So, Butler is probably valued more by the Bulls than any other team. But if another team with significant assets makes a suitable offer, I doubt Butler remains unavailable.

Lakers’ Lou Williams provides smooth scoring, trade intrigue

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 22:  Louis Williams #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers at American Airlines Center on January 22, 2017 in Dallas, Texas.  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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
1 Comment

Lou Williams declared for the 2005 NBA draft out of high school and proclaimed, “The second round is not an option.”

He was drafted with the 15th pick of the second round.

“I used to have to run through everybody,” Williams said. “Now, I don’t feel like I do. Just trying to outsmart guys.”

The last guard drafted directly out of high school, Williams has quietly refined his game. His athleticism has declined with age, but gone too is a recklessness to his play. He largely makes the plays he can and doesn’t try to make the ones he can’t.

Williams is the Lakers’ best player. As a result, he’s also one of the league’s bigger trade chips as Thursday’s trade deadline approaches.

He leads the Lakers with 18.6 points per game, and they come in just 24.2 minutes per game. He makes that time count with a historic combination of volume and efficiency.

Both his usage percentage (30.6) and true shooting percentage (60.9) lead the team. The only regularly-used players to produce full seasons with a usage percentage of at least 30 and a true shooting percentage of at least 60 are or will be Hall of Famers:

Harden (again), Isaiah Thomas and Kawhi Leonard are also on pace to do it this year. All three were All-Stars.

Williams flies under the radar, because he usually comes off the bench for Los Angeles — though that offers special opportunity for recognition later in the season.

Already a Sixth Man of the Year winner (2015 with the Raptors), Williams leads eligible players in win shares this season:

image

Williams and Dwight Powell (Mavericks) are the only reserves leading their teams in win shares.

In fact, Williams has been so much better than his teammates, he could maintain his team lead even if traded. His 5.1 win shares rank well ahead of the 3.3 by Nick Young (another trade candidate) and 2.2 by Larry Nance Jr.

But there’s still a relatively high likelihood he gets moved. The Lakers are focusing more on player development, and the 30-year-old Williams could help a team ready to win now.

He’s locked in for a bargain $7 million next season. So, his more-than-just-a-rental status could help the Lakers land a first-round pick.

“I just go out and play,” Williams said. “I let the powers make deals or if they don’t.”

There’s a patience in Williams’ game that has developed in recent years. He attributes some of it to a torn ACL in 2013. No longer as quick, the pick-and-roll ace has been forced to play smarter.

Williams has mostly eliminated long 2s from his game, getting more shots at the rim, 3-pointers and free throws. His craftiness fits the modern game.

But there are still concerns about how he’ll translate to a better team.

He’s a defensive liability, and his size limits paths to reliability on that end. Not only is he 6-foot-1, he often needs to play shooting guard because his playmaking for others is only so-so for a point guard.

But as poor as he’s been defensively (400th of 450 players in defensive real plus-minus), he has been even better offensively (13th in offensive real plus-minus behind only All-Stars and Nikola Jokic). Still, he relies heavily on drawing fouls, and his tricks might not be so effective during a playoff series with plenty of time to scout him.

There are risks in acquiring Williams. But getting another player having a special season — like, say, Jimmy Butler — would be tremendously more costly. As long as a team has a plan to accentuate Williams’ strengths and hide his weaknesses, he might be one of the best bargains on the trade market.

Paul George says he’s not motivated by opportunity to earn higher max

Eastern Conference forward Paul George of the Indiana Pacers (13) reacts during the second half of the NBA All-Star basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)
AP Photo/Max Becherer
1 Comment

NEW ORLEANS — The Pacers have already granted a standing max offer to Paul George.

So, if he wants to stay in Indiana, his potential paths look relatively straightforward:

If he makes an All-NBA team this season, he can sign a designated-veteran-player extension that would kick in in 2018-19 and projects be worth about $209 million over five years (about $42 million annually).

If he doesn’t make an All-NBA team this season, he can wait to sign and try again to make one next season. If he does, he can sign a new contract in 2018 that would be worth the same $209 million or so over the same five-year period.

I think it’s this simple: If he becomes eligible to become a designated veteran player, he’ll sign then. If not, 2018 free agency projects to offer a choice of about $179 million over five years (about $36 million annually) to re-sign or about $133 million over four years (about $33 million annually) to sign elsewhere — a more difficult decision.

George says he’s not thinking about earning the higher max.

“You want to be one of the best,” George said. “And that’s the only motivation. You want to be All-NBA. That’s what you strive for. That’s what you want to play for, to be recognized as one of the league’s best players.”

That’s no small challenge for George, who was one of 12 All-Star forwards this year, joining:

With only six All-NBA forward spots, George faces long odds this season — and no easy path next season.

But at least eligibility for the higher max coincides with one of his goals.

“It’s nice. It’s nice,” George said. “But that’s not the motivation you want to play for”