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NBA Season Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

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Last season: 57-25, top seed in the West, which they rode all the way to their second consecutive NBA crown. They came within half-a-quarter of losing to Boston on their home court in Game 7, but no Kendrick Perkins and no balloons in the rafters this time gave room for a dramatic comeback win.

Head Coach: Phil Jackson, who says that this is his last season coaching. Probably. Expect him to play with the media on that topic all season, but behind closed doors he will use it as motivation for the three-peat run. Because he wants to one more ring he won’t give to Jeanie Buss.

Key Departures: Jordan Farmar, who was always a poor fit in the Lakers system and talked of wanting more playing time and a starting job. For those reasons we’re not sure why he went to New Jersey to back up Devin Harris, but still not a big loss for the Lakers.

Aside that, DJ Mbenga and Josh Powell were allowed to walk.

Key Additions: Steve Blake comes in at point guard and is a perfect illustration of what GM Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers do well — get players to fit the system. Blake is a solid NBA point guard, one who struggled the second half of last season when the Clippers decided to get out and run and he had to handle the ball in space. What he does is shoot the three, not make mistakes and play reasonable defense. Which is exactly what the role of the point guard is in the triangle. Blake is an okay fit most places, but he is a guy that is exactly what the Lakers need — and he may get more minutes than the aging Derek Fisher this season.

Matt Barnes will come off the bench to spell Ron Artest and gives the Lakers a little more toughness and wing defense. He’s a guy that fits the Lakers because he is versatile — he can guard twos or threes, and if you want to go really small he can even play some four. Not that the Lakers go small much.

Also in are draftees Derrick Caracter, Devin Ebanks, free agent center Theo Ratliff, and also Shannon Brown and Derek Fisher were re-signed. (Fisher for three years, which is a little surprising considering the decline in his play.)

Best case scenario: They win a third consecutive NBA title to send Jackson off in style, and just before the end of the season the Lakers bring back Mark Madsen so he can dance at the victory parade.

For that to happen:
The Lakers need to play a little more consistently in the regular season then be healthy and stay healthy through the playoffs.

Here’s the bottom line — while everyone was looking at Miami, the two-time defending world champions got better and deeper. Their two biggest weaknesses — point guard play and depth on the wing — were addressed. This is still the team to beat in the NBA and if you think they aren’t still hungry you haven’t met Kobe and Ron Artest.

The Lakers had the best regular season record in the West last season, but they needed six dramatic Kobe game-winners to get that. Sure, that’s why you have Kobe on your team, because he is a walking highlight reel. But live by the game-winning jumper, die by the game-winning jumper. The Lakers need to rest Kobe more during the season (same with all their key players) and that means winning a few more games by 17 and not a last second shot. Which is easier said than done in a deep west when you have a target on your back, but that is the task.

Also, In the regular season last year, the Lakers got lax about ball movement on offense, if they do that this year they pay a bigger price.

Come the playoffs, the Lakers still have the most talented, well-compiled roster in the Association when they are all healthy. The key is the Lakers long and agile front line is unmatched — and it means big things on both ends of the court. On offense teams simply cannot matchup the length and quickness of Bynum and Pau Gasol (with Lamar Odom off the bench). That often leads teams to pack the paint to stop LA (or slow them, really) giving the Lakers good looks from the outside. Something the Lakers did not take great advantage of last season, but the addition of Blake and Barnes may change that. Even when teams know what is coming Gasol and Bynum still get theirs, especially when the Lakers execute the offense.

The bigger advantage is on defense — that long front line protects the rim and covers the problems the Lakers have defending quick point guards. The Lakers have three guys now — Kobe, Artest and Barnes — who they can sick on wing players to slow them, but that can be less effective with little point guards. However, everything is better when Bynum is behind the play using his long arms to erase mistakes.

More likely the Lakers will: Go back to the finals at least. Predicting who comes out of the East now and that matchup is impossible. But unless the Lakers come back to the pack in the West they are the best team by head and shoulders in the conference. There are a lot of interesting teams on the second tier in the West, but they are all on the second tier for a reason.

The finals is where health — particularly the health of Bynum — comes in. The Lakers got a title last season with Bynum dragging his leg through the playoffs, that will not happen this season. They need him to be healthier, because the task will be tougher.

Prediction: 58-24, first in the West and another trip to the finals. Then it will all be about health, because if they are the Heat are going to find the same problems with that long front line everyone else does. Well, the Heat will find problems with that and Kobe.

Playoff preview: Four key questions about San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant, center, scores against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP Photo/Eric Gay
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Between 2011 and 2014, the Spurs and Thunder combined for six Western Conferences Finals appearances with at least one reaching it each year. Last season featured Warriors vs. Rockets. This year, one – but only one – of San Antonio and Oklahoma City will return.

1. Are these Kevin Durant‘s final games with the Thunder?

Let’s get this out of the way. Durant, as you well know, will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. At this point, the best thing Oklahoma City can do to keep him is win. He knows the city. He knows the franchise. He knows the roster (which would likely return in similar form if he re-signs). Whether the Thunder send him into free agency with a good taste in his mouth is the biggest variable.

Will Durant leave just because Oklahoma City loses to the Spurs? Of course not. Will Durant stay just because Oklahoma City beats the Spurs? Of course not.

But this is a big opportunity for the Thunder to accentuate their positives – and the Spurs, another team in the Durant hunt, to do the same.

2. Who wins the Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard matchup?

More directly on the court… Durant is involved in what might be the best individual matchup of the 2016 playoffs

Durant and Leonard should both finish top five in MVP voting. If they do, it’d be the first time two players top five in MVP voting who play the same position met in the playoffs since 2012, when LeBron James and Durant faced off in the Finals.

The matchup should be fun on both ends of the court, but it’ll be particularly intriguing when Oklahoma City has the ball. Durant is one of the NBA’s best offensive players, Leonard the best defender. I can’t wait to watch them go at it.

3. How do the Spurs handle Oklahoma City’s athleticism?

In his last 20 games against San Antonio, Serge Ibaka is 15-5. Ibaka embodies the athletic advantage the Thunder hold over the Spurs. At his best, Ibaka attacks with hops and speed the Spurs’ bigs can’t match. Ibaka looked old throughout much of the regular season, but he appeared rejuvenated in the first round against the Mavericks. If he was just saving his energy for the playoffs, following the Dwight Howard model in previous years, Ibaka could play a major role.

Ditto Russell Westbrook, who will challenge Tony Parker to keep up. San Antonio could cross match with Danny Green, but that presents complications in transition.

The Spurs are collectively more skilled, but the Thunder have done a better job than most at neutralizing that advantage.

4. Has Billy Donovan found a rotation that narrows the gap?

Billy Donovan passed his first playoff test against Rick Carlisle. Now the challenge grows even greater against Gregg Popovich.

One thing Donovan did right: Putting Nick Collison, not Kyle Singler, in the playoff rotation. Collison’s minutes could be key against a Spurs team that often plays two slower bigs. I guesses Singler rather than Collison would play regularly, which lowered Oklahoma City’s adjusted net rating by a few points per 100 possessions when projecting using only players in the playoff rotation.

I’ll again use nba wowy! to rank playoff teams by regular-season net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), counting only lineups that include five players projected to be in the team’s postseason rotation, once the first round ends. But for now, here are San Antonio’s and Oklahoma City’s ratings, from the regular season adjusted to only lineups that include five players projected to be in the playoff rotation:

2. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 110.5 to 110.0
  • Defensive rating: 99.4 to 96.1
  • Net rating: +11.1 to +13.9

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 113.6 to 117.3
  • Defensive rating: 106.0 to 104.6
  • Net rating: +7.6 to +12.7

Both teams — already strong by this measure — benefited from beating up on their first-round competition, and the Thunder got a bump for using Collison over Singler. Oklahoma City still trails the Spurs, but the gap is much closer than overall regular-season results would suggest.

Prediction: Spurs in 7

Report: Deron Williams opting out of Mavericks contract

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 03:  Deron Williams #8 of the Dallas Mavericks dribbles the ball agains Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors at American Airlines Center on November 3, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Deron Williams sacrificed $16 million to leave the Nets in a buyout last summer. He recouped $5,378,974 with the Mavericks this season.

Now – instead of exercising his $5,621,026 player option – he’s looking to get more.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Deron Williams intends to opt out of the second season of his contract with the Mavericks, sources told ESPN.com.

Williams could return to the Mavericks. They’re one of the few teams that need a starting point guard, and two others that do – the Nets and Knicks – are probably off the table given Williams’ antipathy for a large market. Expect Dallas to at least try for an upgrade like Mike Conley first.

But even if Williams signs as a backup, he can still probably command more than $6 million next season. With the salary cap skyrocketing to about $92 million and so many teams flush with cap space, the salary picture is changing.

This also increases the Mavericks’ potential cap space.

They project to fall about $24 million under the cap, counting cap holds for Williams, Chandler Parsons (who has a player option that could go either way) and Dwight Powell. In other words, Dallas could spend that $24 million then exceed the cap to re-sign Williams, Parsons and/or Powell.

Renouncing Williams ($6,454,769 cap hold), Parsons ($19,969,950 cap hold only if he opts out) and/or Powell ($1,180,431) could clear additional cap room. Parsons opting in would restrict the Mavericks’ ability to clear space .

Williams would have been a bargain if he opted in. Instead, Dallas gains flexibility.

Report: Kings willing to trade DeMarcus Cousins because his moodiness bothers teammates

Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins walks up court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Saturday, March 5, 2016, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 104-94. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
AP Photo/Darren Abate
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The Kings, after years of shutting down DeMarcus Cousins trade rumors, will reportedly seriously explore the market.

What changed for Sacramento general manager Vlade Divac?

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

the sense within the organization is Divac is tempted by the prospect of pairing his center with his personally selected coach but that he has become increasingly frustrated by his center’s ongoing issues and, for the first time, is willing to test the market for the two-time All-Star.

The disconnect between Karl and Divac, and Karl and Cousins, is rivaled closely by the discord within the fragmented locker room. Apart from Rondo, Cousins has few friends among his teammates. Several players privately have complained to management about his mood swings and disrespect for those around him, including his coaches and in particular Karl.

I still doubt Sacramento trades Cousins. There’s a vast gulf between soliciting Cousins offers and actually pulling the trigger on one. He remains one of the NBA’s most valuable players – already a star, 25 and locked up for two more seasons at a reasonable $35 million combined. It’d take a haul to land him, and I doubt any team offers a package that sways Divac – though a few could have him thinking.

But Cousins’ moodiness is a problem. It gets him harmful technical fouls, takes him out of games mentally and – as we learn here – upsets his teammates.

It seems the Kings are attempting to scare him straight – reports like this leaking, including one that their next coach will have management’s backing if he wants to discipline Cousins.  They have to try something. Rajon Rondo‘s leadership, while endearing to Cousins, apparently didn’t change the center significantly enough.

I wouldn’t rule out Sacramento trading Cousins. If you put a player on the market, you might just hear an offer you like. But selling low on Cousins a – franchise-level player – would be a mistake. It’s too hard to get a player with his talent just to dump him when he’s still young.

A far better outcome would be Cousins heeding these implicit messages, maturing and cutting out the nonsense that too often overshadows his immense talent.

Tony Allen warns Mike Conley: ‘If I see you in New York or one of them places, you got a flagrant foul coming’

Memphis Grizzlies forward Tony Allen (9) and guard Mike Conley (11) react during the second half of Game 2 in a second-round NBA playoff basketball series against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, May 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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Marc Gasol has a simple plan for convincing Mike Conley to re-sign with the Grizzlies: Be nice.

Tony Allen is going another way.

Peter Fleischer of Fox 13 Memphis:

Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace says Conley will re-sign with Memphis. Others disagree. For his part, Conley has been vague – though he left the door open for signing with the Knicks, need a point guard and could have max cap space .

Conley will have options, and he should explore them. This will be his first free agency after the Grizzlies drafted him and signed him to a contract extension. Staying with the only NBA team he has know should be appealing – but other options could be, too.

People in Memphis clearly care about him returning.

Each in their own way.