Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets

Should the Lakers be worried about the Spurs, Mavericks?

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The NBA championship is not decided in December. The NBA season is a long slog where contending teams want to develop good habits, win games and stay healthy for the second season.

We get that. But we can’t help but wonder…

When you look at the West right now what do you see? Dallas just had a 12-game win streak and behind its 2-3 match-up zone is playing its best defense in years. The Spurs are 20-3 and have been the best team in the league over the course of the young season — good defense and an elite offense (even if they have slowed the pace lately). They are getting to rest Tim Duncan so much he is putting himself in games to play.

Then there is the consensus preseason pick to come out of the West, the Lakers — who have looked good but not dominant against a pretty soft schedule. Their defense has been pedestrian. Pau Gasol has looked tired and Ron Artest is not fitting in as smoothly. They have losses to good teams like the Jazz and Bulls, they had to squeak out wins against the Nets and Clippers. It has not been a tour-de-force.

It’s time to ask — should the Lakers be worried? Could the Spurs or Mavericks (or Thunder or Jazz) knock them off come the playoffs?

I put that question to a variety of scouts and player personnel (and development) people around the league in the last week and they said:

Yes. Sort of. But it’s still about the Lakers and not their opponents.

Everyone stuck to the conventional wisdom before the season — if the Lakers are healthy and focused nobody in the West can touch them. Maybe an elite team from the East can get them in the finals, but in the West the Lakers are still the class if properly motivated.

But that’s a big if.

There’s a sense right now that the Lakers are coasting, with several people saying they needed an “edge” or “fire.” That may be a reflection of the Zen ways of Phil Jackson, or it could be the mentality of a team that has been to three straight NBA finals, a team that has played a lot of basketball in recent years, and is just not that pumped up for December. It’s hard to picture a Kobe Bryant led team coasting into the playoffs, but there were questions about them flipping the switch again.

Several scouts noted that the return of Andrew Bynum — which happened Tuesday night — makes the Lakers a whole lot better. It gives them a better defensive presence in the paint and moves (eventually) Lamar Odom back to the bench. Everyone said the Lakers will win plenty of games and likely still be the top seed out west (right now they trail the Spurs by three games).

These same smart basketball minds were raving about the Spurs. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been on top of their game and Gregg Popovich got props from one scout for his willingness to adjust the system and make it less Duncan-centric.

Scouts were impressed with Dallas as well, but one noted what Andrew Bogut was able to do to them inside (along with Bucks penetration) on Monday night (21 points on 10-12 shooting and 1o rebounds). He said you have to now imagine what a healthy Gasol/Odom/Bynum could do. Still, Dallas got raves.

If the Lakers take even a little step back during the playoffs both Dallas and San Antonio have a shot. Maybe the Thunder, too. A real shot.

One person compared the Lakers to the post-title Pistons teams of the last decade, — “Reminds me of the Detroit teams that coasted on talent but could not muster enough raw energy and grit to win that second title.” Those teams couldn’t flip the switch when they needed it. The Lakers have shown grit in the past but the margin for error may be smaller than ever if the Spurs can stay healthy until the playoffs, if Dallas can keep playing this kind of defense and integrate Rodrigue Beaubois.

But in the end, it’s all about the Lakers — they have to beat themselves before anyone else can do it.

Cavaliers retake series lead at home with rout of Raptors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket in the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Eastern Conference Finals have been all about the comforts of home. Through five games between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, the home team has come out on top convincingly every time. Wednesday’s Game 5 was no different, with the Cavs destroying the Raptors, 116-78 to take a 3-2 series lead.

After a pair of awful games in Toronto, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving stepped up at home to score 25 and 23 points, respectively, to go along with 23 from LeBron James. The big production from their stars was enough to keep the Raptors at bay — the only other Cavs player to score in double figures was Richard Jefferson, who had 11 points, but it didn’t matter.

On the other side, after coming up huge at home in Games 3 and 4, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 7-for-20 from the field Wednesday, and nobody else did much to pick up the slack. After not trailing by 30 at a half at any point this season, Toronto trailed by 31 at halftime, and the lead ballooned to 100-60 at the end of the third quarter. From the beginning, this game was one-sided.

The Cavs can close out the series on the road on Friday, ensuring James’ sixth straight trip to the Finals. But the Raptors have been a different team at home during this series, and in a do-or-die situation they should come out with more fight. It’s hard to imagine things going much worse than they did Wednesday.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.

Coach Steve Kerr: Warriors on brink but ready to rally

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Steve Kerr gave his Golden State players a much-needed mental day off with time to rest their weary bodies, and he got back to work trying to figure out how to save the season against a powerful Thunder team that shows no signs of slowing down.

Back to the basics, back to doing the little things that got the Warriors this far.

After a record 73 wins in the regular season, the Warriors are on the brink as they go into Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Thursday night in Oakland trailing the Thunder 3-1 after a second straight lopsided loss in Oklahoma City.

No denying it’s a daunting task for the defending champs – especially given that MVP Stephen Curry is a far cry from being completely healthy.

“Well, it’s a sense of reality staring us in the face. We’re down 3-1,” Kerr said Wednesday. “Momentum can shift quickly in the playoffs. We’ve seen that the last couple years. Let’s take care of business at home, get some momentum back and we’ve got a chance.”

All season long, the Warriors have taken the best efforts from every opponent. The just haven’t shown the vulnerabilities that appeared the past two games in Oklahoma City, where Golden State lost back-to-back games for the first time during its record-setting season.

The flight home was hardly fun following Tuesday’s 118-94 defeat.

“It was not festive. It was quiet,” Kerr said.

The Warriors shot 41 percent and committed 21 turnovers that led to 18 Thunder points. Curry was 6 for 20 and missed eight of his 10 3-point attempts to score 19 points, sparking further talk that he’s far from full strength. The unanimous MVP has dealt with ankle, knee and elbow injuries this postseason alone.

Kerr isn’t about to put a percentage on his superstar’s health.

“I don’t do that. If he were struggling with anything, I would know,” Kerr said. “Nobody has said anything about Steph being 70 percent to me. Our training staff, relatives, friends, sources with knowledge of our team’s thinking, nobody has told me he’s 70 percent.”

Golden State will likely need a big night from Curry to get back in this.

Only nine teams in NBA history have rallied from being down 3-1 to win a postseason series, yet Kerr was quick to note, “I’m guessing most of them weren’t the defending champs.”

With the season on the line, first-year Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan expects the Warriors to bring their best while back in front of their home fans.

“Again, we have great respect for Golden State. We know how good of a team they are. You’ve got to get to a place after each game – what happened in the game, what do we need to get better, what do we do well, what are some changes or adjustments we need to make – and then you’ve got to move into the next one,” Donovan said.

“I just don’t believe that Game 5 is a continuation from Game 4. This is its own separate game and we’re going to have to go now on the road to play in a very difficult environment against a great team.”

The Thunder know full well how close they are but also that nothing will be given to them easily. They last reached the NBA Finals in 2012, losing in five games to the Miami Heat.

Oklahoma City stole Game 1 on the Warriors’ raucous home floor in Oracle Arena, where Golden State has lost just three times all season.

“Every game you have a sense of urgency, it’s the playoffs and you know what everybody’s playing for. We’ve just got to come out there and be who we are,” Kevin Durant said. “We can’t put too much pressure on ourselves. We have to go out, play the game, and play with passion and energy. And we know the whole crowd’s going to be against us and we have to stick together even more.”

The Thunder are playing with all the poise and passion on both ends, while the Warriors haven’t been able to hang around the past two games, in part because of uncharacteristic miscues.

“They’ve had a lot of frustration over the years. They’re healthy. They’re whole. They are determined, and they want what we have,” Kerr said. “We have a banner hanging up in here and we take great pride in that. It’s a hard thing to accomplish, and they’ve been close, but they haven’t done it, and they’re coming after us. They’re really getting after it and playing well and competing. We’ve got to stand up to that.”

Report: Bismack Biyombo could command $17 million per year in free agency

TORONTO, ON - MAY 15:  Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors celebrates late in the second half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 15, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Last summer, Bismack Biyombo signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Raptors with a player option for the second year, following four unremarkable seasons in Charlotte. After his performance in the playoffs, it’s a no-brainer that he’ll opt out, and he’s in line for a huge payday. Perhaps bigger than most people expected, even with the rising salary cap.

An unnamed GM told the Sporting News‘ Sean Deveney that Biyombo’s price tag this summer could be $17 million per year:

“For someone like (Biyombo), I think when you look at a guy like Tyson Chandler and what he got from Phoenix last summer (four years, $52 million), that’s where you start for a contract,” one Eastern Conference GM told Sporting News. “But you factor in the cap spike and it’s probably going to be high, I’d say, $16-17 million. It’ll be a heck of a $17 million-per-year gamble.”

Honestly, $17 million a year seems low given what next year’s market is shaping up to be. He’s arguably the third-best center available, after Al Horford (unlikely to leave Atlanta) and Hassan Whiteside (a lock for a max deal somewhere). With the amount of cap space teams around the league will have, and the top-heaviness of the free-agent class (there isn’t much beyond Horford, Kevin Durant and Mike Conley), it’s a good bet that somebody will overpay for Biyombo, especially after a playoff run that’s seen him average 20.5 rebounds per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference. Whether he’s worth that money is a different discussion, but he’ll get it from somebody.