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.

John Wall scores 37 as Wizards down LeBron James, Cavs 127-115

Associated Press
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CLEVELAND (AP) John Wall scored 37 points, Bradley Beal added 27 and the Washington Wizards began a challenging road trip by beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 127-115 on Saturday night.

Wall scored 18 in the first quarter, when the Wizards shot 82 percent, and Washington held on down the stretch to avenge an overtime loss to the NBA champions last month.

James, who briefly wore goggles to protect an eye injury sustained Friday night, scored 24 and added 11 rebounds and eight assists. Kyrie Irving added 23 points and Kevin Love 17 for Cleveland, playing at home for the only time in a seven-game stretch.

Washington’s victory cut Cleveland’s lead in the Eastern Conference to a half-game over idle Boston.

Rudy Gobert calls out Jazz teammates after loss: “We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice.”

Associated Press
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Utah and the L.A. Clippers are almost locked into a first round, four vs. five battle in the Western Conference. The only question is which team will have home court, and the Clippers took a big step towards that beating the Jazz at home Saturday. While the Jazz still has a half-game lead, the Clippers have a much softer schedule the rest of the way.

After that loss, Jazz center Rudy Gobert was ticked off and called out his teammates. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. … Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice. Those guys, we know they’re going to get calls. We’ve just got to come out aggressive and ready to fight.”

Interesting comments for a team that is third in the NBA in defensive rating and 13th in offense.

Gobert is frustrated as Utah has dropped four of its last five, and the slump has been on both ends of the court. The defense has struggled, but if guys are looking to score too much they aren’t doing it efficiently because the offense has been worse.

This slide likely costs Utah home court in the first round, which could matter in what will be a tight matchup with Los Angeles. Utah needs to find its grinding rhythm again heading into the playoffs, at their best they can knock off the Clippers in the first round. Just not like they are playing now.

One thing to watch, Utah’s Gordon Hayward asked out of the game in the fourth quarter due to what is being called a bruised muscle in his leg. If he misses any time or if this lingers, it could be trouble for the Jazz in the postseason.

 

LeBron James starts game with protective goggles. That lasts about a minute.

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LeBron James suffered a scratched cornea Friday night when he went up for a layup late in the third quarter and Jeremy Lamb tried to contest and caught him clean across the face. LeBron got the and-1, but had trouble keeping his eye open in postgame interviews Friday.

Saturday he did play — wearing protective goggles. As you can see above.

That lasted about a minute.

LeBron was likely frustrated as the Cavaliers defensive woes had the Wizards up double digits much of the first half.

Kobe Bryant says he’s “only a phone call away” if organization needs his advice

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For the first time since he walked off the court in his final game, Kobe Bryant was back at Staples Center Friday night.

The reason was Shaquille O’Neal was getting a statue out in front of Staples Center (a building that may not have gotten built without the two of them). The two famed feuders sat next to each other and joked around through the ceremony. Time heals all wounds.

With the new management of the Lakers — specifically Kobe’s former agent Rob Pelinka as GM — there has been speculation Kobe could take on a role. He’s not looking for something formal, according to reports, but he didn’t say no, either, when asked.

I picture Kobe as a guy who someday buys a team, not a guy who wants to haggle with agents over the details of a contract. He’s not going to take on a day-to-day role, he likes the retired life and what he is building with the Kobe brand.

That said, the Lakers front office can use all the smart voices it can get as they try speed up a rebuild. They should give him a call every once in a while.