With rumors abound, Lakers near a franchise crossroads

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Though the formalization of the new CBA proceeds at a slow churn, the NBA rumor mill is already in mid-season form. Chris Paul and Dwight Howard — both in the final year of their respective contracts — are suddenly ready to be shipped every which way, and media outlets of every form are examining the possibility of certain teams landing the big fish of next year’s free agent class.

The most popular rumored destinations are, shockingly, a pair of usual suspects: the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. Clearly the new collective bargaining agreement has rocked basketball sensibilities to their very core.

The Knicks are a particularly odd case because they seem to be included in the discussion without regard for practical considerations. I’m sure Chris Paul would love to play alongside Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony…just as I’m sure he’d love to play alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Desire alone won’t will Paul to New York any more than it’ll get him to Miami, as the Knicks lack the cap space to sign him outright next summer and no longer have the assets to sell the Hornets on a trade. The financial pieces just don’t seem to add up to link Paul to the Knicks, but then again: stranger things have happened.

The Lakers’ position in such rumors is slightly more believable, if only because Los Angeles is inching toward a franchise crossroads, and actually has the pieces necessary to facilitate some kind of deal. The underlying truth that drives the Lakers involvement is the fact that their core is unstable in the long-term; the salary commitments to Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum are only set to get more and more ridiculous as time goes on, eventually reaching a critical point by the third season of the new collective bargaining agreement. It may be too early to panic in anticipation of a development a few years down the line, but realistically, the Lakers should begin planning for their future — both in terms of that particular season and life after Kobe in general — as soon as possible.

As remarkable of a player as Bryant is, things don’t typically bode all that well for 33-year-old wing players staring down the twilight of their careers. His ridiculous work ethic will no doubt keep him productive for a long while, but the days of Bryant anchoring a team with his ridiculous output are numbered, if not already flittering away. Yet Kobe will be paid $25 million this season, $28 million next year, and $31 million in 2012-2013 — just in time to take up nearly half the room under the newly fortified luxury tax line. Oh, and Los Angeles only has to find room for Pau Gasol’s salary of around $19 million for each of the next three seasons, the two years remaining and $31 million remaining on Andrew Bynum’s deal (and a likely extension beyond that point), a new contract or replacement for Lamar Odom, and a roster full of competent role players alongside that enormous financial commitment to Bryant.

If Jerry Buss is willing to cut the check for an unprecedented luxury tax bill, then the Lakers have a shot at preserving their current core. But even then, there is no guarantee that the trio of Bryant, Gasol, and Bynum will be able to score L.A. another championship. This isn’t really the kind of situation that a general manager and owner can just stew on; something’s gotta give, as the Lakers will likely either start to feel their on-court performance become stale over time, or be saddled with three giant contracts that prevent the construction of an adequate supporting cast.

The Lakers may never make a serious run at Howard or Paul, but considering where they stand, they’ll certainly entertain the notion. It’s difficult to say exactly what Los Angeles would be willing to surrender in the process — or the resolve with which they’ll explore those superstar options — but the potential and mechanics of a possible deal are there, as are some very real motivations for the Lakers to rework their roster on the fly.

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.