Lakers resurgence reminds us bigger is better

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Why, every year, do people fall for this?

Back in December Lakers fans were freaking out — and the rest of the league hoped they were right — because something seemed off about the Lakers. They weren’t bad, but the two-time defending champions were not dominating everyone, were not focused, were not defending, were not healthy and were not turning water into wine as their fans expect. Meanwhile the Spurs and Mavericks were steamrolling everyone in their path. People started working on their epitaphs for the Lakers tombstones.

But scouts warned us back then that it was really about the Lakers, not their opponents. If the Lakers got it together, they were the class of the West and maybe again the class of the NBA.

Well, the Lakers have got it together.

The Lakers are 13-1 since the All-Star break and have been the best team in the league. They are focused, they are defending, they are healthy (relatively) and they have the swagger that champions can bring.

And they remind us that bigger is better.

Or as our own Matt Moore tweeted after the Lakers beat the revamped Mavericks recently, it’s not just the sheer length of the Lakers front line, but the skill.

Basically, the lesson from this game is: You can add all the size depth you want but it doesn’t matter if none of it is as good as LA’s.

Sure, there is Kobe Bryant, and he will do Kobe Bryant things. He will get his 20-plus points and take some bad shots (and make a number of them). He will dominate the ball late in games.

But it is the Lakers size and skill that sets them apart. Bigger is better in basketball. Every one of their three key big men is at least 6’10” and with a crazy wingspan.

Andrew Bynum is the defensive anchor — the Lakers have him playing back and work at funneling penetration to him, forcing a pass or a shot over his long wingspan. He also can be a beast on the offensive glass and has a respectable jump hook. For scoring they have Pau Gasol, the most fundamentally sound big man in the game — he has the best footwork of any big in the Association, can score effectively with either hand and is probably the best passer out of the high post in the league. Then there is Lamar Odom, the likely NBA Sixth Man of the Year who is having a career season. He’s the tallest point forward in the league who can score in the post or lead the break off the dribble.

Or look at it this way: Odom has a PER of 20, Bynum 21.6 and Gasol 23.4. (For the uninitiated, PER is a measure of basketball impact and efficiency.)

Lakers blog Forum Blue & Gold (my old stomping grounds) and Neil Paine from Basketball-Reference teamed up recently to see if any team ever had three big men with PER’s as high as the Lakers did.

Nope.

Not since the NBA/ABA merger in the mid 1970s. No team has had three forwards/centers with PERs that high. No team has had three big men having seasons like this, three big men who can change the game on the offensive end with their skills.

Bigger is better. It is impossible for other teams to match up with. And that is the reason that for all the drama in December, taking the Larry O’Brien trophy away from the Lakers is going to be monumentally difficult.

Maybe next December people won’t fall for this… but probably not.

Eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard: “I have a lot left in the tank”

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — At 31 and entering his 14th NBA season, eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard says his best basketball is ahead of him.

Wearing a teal suit with black trim, a smiling Howard insisted Monday he can return to being a dominant center with the Charlotte Hornets, where he will be reunited with coach Steve Clifford and play for one of his childhood heroes, team owner Michael Jordan.

“A lot of people have written me off, which is great because it’s going to make me work even harder,” Howard said during his introductory news conference. “I’m just looking forward to this opportunity because I have a lot left in the tank.”

This will be Howard’s third team in three seasons.

The Atlanta Hawks, his hometown team, traded him to Charlotte one year into a three-year, $74 million contract. Howard said he has no hard feelings, adding that “sometimes things just don’t work out.”

But he’s confident Charlotte is the right fit.

“I think I’m a lot healthier than I have been in the past five years and I think this is going to be my best time,” Howard said. “I’m a lot wiser now, stronger mentally and physically, and I’m in the right place with a great coach, a great GM and the GOAT (greatest of all time). So I think this is the perfect opportunity.”

Much of Howard’s optimism stems from being reunited with Clifford.

They worked together for seven seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles, and the 6-foot-11 three-time Defensive Player of the Year loves Clifford’s defense-first mentality. He’s also confident Clifford will put him in the right situations to succeed on offense.

“He understands me,” Howard said. “… He was always there for me and not once did he turn his back on me or talk bad about me. He was very positive and he was somebody that I have always trusted in.”

The feeling is mutual.

Clifford said he’s never coached a player smarter than Howard when it comes to understanding defensive coverages. While Howard has incredible athletic ability, Clifford said, he’s never been given the credit he deserves for playing a “thinking man’s game.”

“Smart always wins in the NBA,” Clifford said.

Howard is expected to start in Charlotte alongside All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, guard Nic Batum and forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams. Cody Zeller, last year’s starting center, is expected to come off the bench for the Hornets but still see significant minutes.

Howard said he’s learned a lot over the past 13 seasons.

“Over the years a lot of things have been said and I’ve not said anything back,” Howard said. “Somehow things that weren’t true kept getting stirred up, and that gave a lot of people wrong opinions about who I was as a person. I should be the one speaking up for myself instead of allowing other people to do that.”

In Charlotte, Howard becomes the second big-name athlete to be known as “Superman,” joining former NFL MVP quarterback Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.

Both are from the Atlanta area and have met a couple of times but aren’t close friends. Howard said he’s eager to connect with Newton and get to know him better.

“We have the same attitude; we love to win, but we want to have fun,” Howard said.

 

As expected, Timberwolves waive Jordan Hill

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Last summer, the Minnesota Timberwolves took a $4 million flier on veteran big man Jordan Hill, hoping he could give them some backup minutes behind Karl-Anthony Towns. Didn’t work out that way, he appeared in just 47 minutes across seven games. Cole Aldrich was better (though not great), and so in the draft the Timberwolves took Justin Patton hoping he can give them some minutes next season.

Which means Hill’s time in Minnesota has come to an end.

Hill will be 30 years old next season, but I’m not sure that there’s another NBA contract in his future. If so he may have to earn it through a training camp invite.

Report: Nets, Sixers to try and land J.J. Redick as free agent

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Chris Paul and Blake Griffin get all the headlines as the big Clippers’ big free agents, but there is another Clipper going to get paid this summer:

J.J. Redick.

One of the best snipers in the NBA, he shot 42.9 percent from three last year. However, he’s become much more than just a shooter. No player works harder off the ball to get open than Redick, he’s got enough game to put the ball on the floor and create if he gets closed out on, and he’s a solid team defender. He has remade his body and his game since his days at Duke, and now he’s going to get paid.

Maybe by Brooklyn or Philadephia, reports Kevin O’Conner at The Ringer.

Multiple league sources I’ve spoken to expect the Sixers and Nets to make a hard push at Redick. Were he to go to either of those teams, Redick could receive an opportunity unlike anything he’s had before. He is one of the greatest 3-point shooters in league history, and is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high six 3-point attempts per game. That’s a lot of triples, but it’s not enough. Even Sixers swingman Robert Covington averaged more last season, at 6.1 per game, and he shot only 33.3 percent. A gunslinger of Redick’s caliber should be averaging about 8.5 treys, in the same range as Klay Thompson or Eric Gordon. Had Redick taken 8.5 3s last season and posted the same 42.9 percent clip, he would’ve averaged 18.2 points per game. Redick could receive those chances with the Sixers or Nets, all while living within close proximity to his home in Brooklyn.

Redick will have options, the question is what does he want? Does he want to be close to home in Brooklyn? Does he want to both help on the court and mentor off it the up-and-coming Sixers? Would he take a little less money, and a couple fewer shots, to chase a ring? Does he want to stay a Clipper?

Redick has earned the right to have options, his skill set could help any team. He may be flying under fans’ radar, but not front office executives. They see Redick’s value. Which is why he will have options come July 1.

Report: Nuggets plan to make free agent run at Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap

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Denver likes its young core. As it should. Nikola Jokic looks like a franchise cornerstone piece at center. Young guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are clearly part of the future. Emmanuel Mudiay and Juan Hernangomez may be as well.

What Denver needs most is an upgrade at the four — someone who can defend, rebound, and space the floor. It’s a top off-season priority (and why they came up as a third team in the Kevin Love/Paul George trade talks, but that appears dead now).

Instead, expect the Nuggets to be aggressive on the free agent market. Via Marc Stein and Chris Haynes at ESPN.

Denver, according to sources, hopes to crash the list of suitors for Los Angeles Clippers unrestricted free agent Blake Griffin and Atlanta Hawks unrestricted free agent Paul Millsap.‎

Denver’s interest in Millsap is no secret and they will likely come in with a big offer, and it’s known he’s likely to leave Atlanta this summer. He’d be the perfect fit with his ability to defend other fours (he almost made the NBA All-Defensive Team), he is strong on the glass, and he shot 31.3 percent from three last season (you have to respect him out there). Griffin is more athletic and a better passer than Millsap, but he’s not the same level of defender, and he comes with more injury concerns. He also could stay with the Clippers.

Denver has positioned itself to be a player, a team going after one more big star to position itself not just in the playoffs in the West but as a team fast on the rise. Whether the Nuggets can out-recruit teams for elite players, remains to be seen. Millsap, Griffin and players of that level have options and a lot of teams chasing them.

However, Denver is one confident organization right now.