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.

Kevin Durant on return to Washington D.C. that never was: “I really just didn’t want to play at home”

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 07:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors during the game against the LA Clippers at Staples Center on December 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, 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 Harry How/Getty Images)
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A year or two ago, there was a palpable buzz among Wizards fans — they had a shot to get Kevin Durant. LeBron James had just returned like a prodigal son to Cleveland, and there seemed to be a sense from fans that other stars wanted to go home to play. The Wizards needed another star, they had the cap space, so some saw a path for Durant to return to his native D.C.

Except, a lot of players don’t want to go home again. Not to play.

Durant was one of them, as he confirmed to the Washington Post.

“I don’t want to open up anything in the past, but I really just didn’t want to play at home,” Durant said. “It was nothing about the fans. Being at home, I was so happy with that part of my life — playing at home, being in front of friends, hanging with friends and family every day. That was a part of my life that has come and gone.

“I was like, I’m trying to build a second part of my life as a man living in a different part of the country, just trying to do different things. I did everything I was supposed to do in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, I felt. Now it’s time to do something new. I didn’t want to come back. That’s just my thought process behind it. It had nothing to do with basketball, the fans, the city.”

Not every Wizards fan will see it this way, but that’s an entirely reasonable thought process. Sometimes in life, we need a change of direction, and for Durant this would have been a step back into the past. The one he made to go to Golden State has worked out pretty well for him so far.

KD is not alone in this. Players see a lot of added stress returning home, both in terms of expectations and the demands of family and friends (asking for tickets, etc.), and some are just not into the idea of a return. The idea that Blake Griffin wants to return to Oklahoma and play for the Thunder may not fit with who he is right now. Russell Westbrook seems to like it in OKC and isn’t itching to get back to Los Angeles (but Paul George might be). Each player is a different case — how they view their hometown, whether they would want to play for the team there  — and each will make his decision.

Durant made his and is comfortable with it.

Pat Riley says Magic Johnson will win with the Lakers

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 22:  Los Angeles Dodgers part owner and former Los Angeles Laker Magic Johnson (R) talks with Miami Heat President and former Lakers head coach Pat Riley during the game with the San Francisco Giants on August 22, 2012 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) — Pat Riley has never doubted Magic Johnson, and isn’t about to start now.

Riley believes Johnson will succeed in what looks like a daunting task of getting the Los Angeles Lakers back to prominence. After the Lakers cleaned house this past week, Johnson and Riley are contemporaries – Riley as president of the Miami Heat, Johnson in the same role out in L.A., where they won four titles together in the 1980s.

Trade talks, he cautioned, will be dangerous for both sides.

“He’s going to try to rifle my pockets and I’m going to try to rifle his,” Riley said. “But I’m happy for him, and I’m also happy for the Lakers.”

The news took Riley back to 1991, when Johnson delivered the shocking word that he was HIV-positive and had to retire from basketball. Riley was gone from Los Angeles by that point, and was then coach of the New York Knicks. But it resonated deeply within Riley, who has maintained a very close relationship with Johnson.

Hearing Johnson speak about taking over the Lakers this past week moved Riley as well, albeit in an obviously different fashion.

“Back then, all of us and I think everybody in the country not knowing exactly what HIV was all about, we all sort of looked at that as a very difficult time and possibly a death sentence for the kid,” Riley said. “Now 25 years later, he stands at the press conference saying that he’s president of the team. Deja vu, you know?”

Riley said Johnson didn’t seek his counsel on what life is like as a team president before taking the Lakers job. Riley said Johnson already knew the answer to anything he would ask, simply from being around his former coach so many times in recent years.

The news wasn’t entirely easy for Riley to digest, since he also holds now-former general manager Mitch Kupchak in high regard. Kupchak, who played for Riley, was let go as part of the front-office sweepout by the Lakers this past week.

But he sounded completely confident in what Johnson will accomplish.

“There couldn’t be a better person and worker, I think, to be the sort of face and also to spearhead,” Riley said. “He’ll get the job done out there.”

 

Jose Calderon, Andrew Bogut, Brandon Jennings all officially waived; contenders line up for their services

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It was only a question of when, not if, but it has happened.

Jose Calderon, Andrew Bogut, and Brandon Jennings have been waived and are about to hit the free agent market, according to reports.

They have to clear waivers (Wednesday) before they can sign with a new team. However, all three seem to be headed to teams with dreams of going deep into the playoffs.

The Golden State Warriors want a little depth at the point for the postseason, and they are going with the steady but aged veteran Calderon. He will have limited run behind Stephen Curry and Shaun Livingston, but he will have a role in the playoffs and as a steadying force.

The Washington Wizards are going another, more talented but more combustible direction, and appear the frontrunners to sign Brandon Jennings (Chris Haynes of ESPN had that link. . The Wizards have not loved the play of Trey Burke this season and have leaned on Tomas Satoransky to run some point, expect Jennings to get some healthy run if and when he arrives in Washington.

Bogut is expected to sign with the Cavaliers, although the Spurs could have a shot at him and other teams are asking to get in the mix (not his former team the Warriors, however).

NBA: Bulls beat Suns after two key missed calls late in fourth quarter

Chicago Bulls' Jimmy Butler (21) celebrates his game-tying shot late in the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Chicago. The Bulls won in overtime,p 128-121. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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The collective ‘we’ were happy the Bulls reached overtime against the Suns on Friday, because we saw Dwyane Wade‘s fantastic dagger dunk.

The Bulls were happy they reached overtime, because they won the game in the extra period.

But with correct officiating down the stretch, Phoenix probably would have won in regulation.

The Bulls got away with two key violations late in the fourth quarter, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report.

First, Jimmy Butler got away with traveling with 1:58 left, per the league:

Butler (CHI) move his pivot foot.

Instead of a Chicago turnover, Butler kicked the ball to Nikola Mirotic, who hit a 3-pointer.

Then, Denzel Valentine got away with a defensive three-second violation with a minute left, per the league:

Valentine (CHI) is in the paint without actively guarding an opponent for longer than three seconds.

A correct call would’ve given any Sun on the court — either Eric Bledsoe (who’s making 85% of his free throws this season and 80% for his career) or Devin Booker (82%, 83%) — a single free throw and Phoenix a fresh shot clock.

Instead, the Suns — facing a tougher road penetrating the paint — turned the ball over.

On their own, those missed calls were each big swings. Together, they were huge in Chicago’s win.