NBA Season Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

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Last season: 57-25, second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The trip to the postseason was shorter than usual for the then-back-to-back defending champs, as they were unceremoniously swept out of the second round by the eventual champion Mavericks.

Head Coach: Mike Brown takes the helm in his first season with the Lakers after Phil Jackson finished 11 in Los Angeles, going to the finals seven times during that span and winning five NBA titles. Brown of course has the experience of coaching a team led by one of the league’s best players, as he was the man in Cleveland responsible for guiding LeBron James and company to the best regular season record in the league a couple of times, along with a trip to the NBA Finals.

Key Departures: Lamar Odom was traded away to the defending champion Mavericks, after the deal that would have brought Chris Paul to the Lakers was vetoed by the league office. Odom was hurt by this, and immediately requested a trade. And for some reason, the Lakers decided to immediately grant this request. Someone might have wanted to remind the Lakers’ front office that just because a player asks to be traded, you don’t have to give him away for nothing just to appease him. If that were the case, Kobe Bryant would have been gone in the summer of 2007.

Oh, and Shannon Brown signed a one-year deal in Phoenix as a free agent.

Key Additions: Does a Traded Player Exception count? Because that’s what the Lakers received from Dallas in return for the league’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year. If you’re looking for actual bodies that L.A. added, then we have Josh McRoberts and Jason Kapono — both of whom are substantially worse than the departed players whose minutes they’ll likely be taking.

Best case scenario: The Lakers were not a team that was completely broken, despite their shortcomings in the playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks. L.A. was gassed after three straight trips to the Finals, and mentally, believing that somehow once the playoffs began that they would magically solve all of the problems that were evident during the regular season wasn’t a great place to be. The Lakers got what they deserved against Dallas, but talent-wise, they were just fine. That’s no longer the case entering this season.

Trading Odom away for nothing more than a traded player exception — collective bargaining agreement jargon for empty salary cap space to acquire somebody else, so, essentially, thin air — is, by itself, a terrible move from the Lakers’ front office. When you add the fact that they gave Odom to the Mavericks, the very team that beat them four straight times in last year’s playoffs, well, on paper, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Now, if that was step one to clearing some cap space to help the Lakers acquire Dwight Howard, then fine. But as of right now, Howard is off the trading block, and the Magic seem content to start the season with him on their roster. At some point, the Magic will likely look to trade Howard, in order to get something in return instead of the nothing they’d receive if he left at the end of the upcoming season as an unrestricted free agent. But with Howard waffling recently on the intensity of his desire to leave Orlando, it’s not a guarantee that he will be traded at all, much less to the Lakers.

Right now, with the loss of Odom and the less than inspiring roster additions that the Lakers have managed to make thus far, the best case for a successful season in Los Angeles — meaning, at minimum, a trip to the Finals — is acquiring Dwight Howard. Short of that, losing depth while helping the defending champs seems like a step or two in the wrong direction, and teams like the Thunder and Grizzlies are as strong as they were last season, if not stronger. Getting out of the West with less talent than before isn’t likely, so really, the Lakers need to pin their hopes on acquiring Howard, while still keeping either Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum on the roster.

For that to happen: The Magic will have to start slowly, and Howard will need to once again realize that the Magic have failed to provide him with the correct pieces necessary to win not one, not two … well, at least a single NBA championship. With Kobe Bryant waiting in Los Angeles — along with Gasol or Bynum, one of which would have to stay to make it worth the Lakers’ while, at least in the short term — the Lakers should be the preferred option for Howard if and when he should once again tell his current team that he won’t be back next season.

More likely the Lakers will: Begin their descent into mediocrity as Kobe Bryant plays out his final few seasons as angry and disgruntled as ever? Not just yet. But if the current roster is the one the Lakers are forced to go into battle with for the duration of this season, it’s tough to envision them doing much better than a deep trip into the Western Conference playoffs, when successful seasons for this core group of players are measured only by championships.

Prediction: 48-18, third seed in the Western Conference.

Cleveland GM David Griffin: “I hope everybody says we have no chance”

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The Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the NBA title. According to bovda.lv, bet $100 on the Warriors to win the title and you get $41.7 dollars. Bet $100 on the Cavaliers and you get $200. And that number is likely to get worse for Warriors fans.

The Cavaliers are okay with that. They like being the underdogs. Look at what GM David Griffin said in a televised interview after they eliminated the Celtics in Game 5, via Cleveland.com.

“I hope everybody says we have no chance,” General Manager David Griffin said during a TV interview following the Cavaliers’ 135-102 win Thursday night against the Boston Celtics, clinching a third straight NBA Finals appearance.

“Obviously the team we’re playing is as good as you can possibly put together, it’s going to be an unbelievable battle for us, but I think [the Cavs] love battling together. The greater the odds, the better we seem to play together. We really do rally around each other in that sense.”

There is some truth to that.

There’s also a difference between that truth and slowing Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. How the Cavaliers are going to do that will be the interesting part of these playoffs.

Detroit’s Van Gundy honored for cooperation with media, fans

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Stan Van Gundy of the Detroit Pistons has won the Rudy Tomjanovich Award, which honors an NBA coach for his cooperation with media and fans, as well as excellence on the court.

The Professional Basketball Writers Association announced the winner Friday. Van Gundy was one of five finalists for the award. The others were Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets, Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets, David Fizdale of the Memphis Grizzlies and Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics.

Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors won the award last season.

No surprise: It’s Cavs-Warriors in the NBA Finals, again

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OAKLAND (AP) — Here they go again.

For the third straight year, it’s Cleveland and Golden State in the NBA Finals. The 2016 champions versus the 2015 champions . The first “threematch” – rematch of a rematch – in league history. It’s the matchup most expected, the matchup most predicted, and probably the matchup the Cavaliers and Warriors wanted as well.

Let the hype, and the waiting, begin: Game 1 isn’t until June 1.

“I’ve been very blessed the last few years to be a part of this league and play on the big stage,” said Cleveland star LeBron James, who has now reached the Finals for the eighth time – including each of the last seven years. “But we’re going to enjoy this for a couple more days before we have to lock in on that juggernaut out west.”

The Cavaliers and Warriors split their two meetings this season, both winning at home. Cleveland won by one on Christmas Day, Golden State prevailed by 35 on Jan. 16.

Golden State led the league with 67 wins this season and is a staggering 27-1 in its last 28 games – including a perfect 12-0 in the Western Conference playoffs, the first time a team has gone this deep into an NBA postseason without losing. Cleveland, which seemed sleepy at times in the regular season, went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs that ended with a win over Boston on Thursday night.

“Playing in this league, you can’t take anything for granted,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Thirty teams suit up every year trying to get to this point, and only two teams do. So you have to appreciate it. … We need to understand the privilege that we have and the opportunity that we have to play in the Finals again, to have the opportunity to win a championship.”

Already, the back-and-forth is underway.

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue was quoted earlier this week saying he thought Boston’s offense was “harder to defend” than Golden State’s. Countered Golden State acting coach Mike Brown, when asked about it Thursday: “That’s his opinion. It’s cute.”

And there will be reminders of the Halloween party that James threw for the Cavaliers last fall, with “3-1 Lead” – a nod to what the Warriors lost in last year’s Finals – prominently displayed on the drum set.

Much more of that sort of that will likely follow over the next week, filling time before Golden State plays host to Game 1. But there’s also a clear respect level between the clubs as well.

“The best team in our league the last three years,” James said of the Warriors. “And they’ve added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year. So it makes it even more difficult. They’re going to challenge us a lot, offensively, defensively, mentally, physically. We have to be ready for the challenge.”

For James, the Finals are an annual rite.

For Durant, this trip ends a five-year wait.

Durant’s only other time in the Finals was 2012 when he was with Oklahoma City. The Thunder lost to Miami in five games, a series that made James a champion for the first time.

At the very moment where the clock ran out in that series, the person James was embracing was Durant – telling the then-Thunder star, his offseason workout partner at the time, how proud of him he was.

“Hopefully,” James said that night, “I don’t continue to have to run into him.”

They’ll collide again, starting next week.

Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder for Golden State as a free agent last summer meant the Warriors went from mere overwhelming favorites to win the West again to super-duper-overwhelming favorites to win the West again. They got a big scare in late February when Durant had a left knee injury, but he’s back and the Warriors have rolled since.

“It’s a little different, definitely. I can’t lie,” Durant said, when comparing the 2012 Finals trip to this one. “I went when I was 23 years old, and it felt like the Western Conference Finals was almost like the championship. Just getting to that point, you know how hard it is and how much work you put in to start the season. So it’s a little different now, obviously. We have a bigger goal in mind.”

The storylines are many. Can James win his fourth ring? Can Durant win his first? Will the Warriors be haunted by letting last season’s 3-1 lead slip away? Will they become the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in a postseason? How will Golden State guard Kyrie Irving? How will Cleveland try to contain Curry?

There’s also the irony that Brown, the first coach who took James to an NBA Finals in 2007 – Cleveland was swept by San Antonio – will now coach against him, likely in the same leading role he’s had for Golden State since head coach Steve Kerr was forced to take a break because of continued problems with his surgically repaired back.

“I don’t care who you’re playing, to make it to the NBA Finals, to win your conference finals, it’s a big task,” Brown said.

The biggest task awaits.

Isaiah Thomas wants Celtics to sign free agents, reportedly they are not looking to trade him (yet)

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The Boston Celtics made a huge leap forward this season: They got the No. 1 seed in the East and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. For a team on the rise, that’s impressive.

However, as soon as they landed the No. 1 pick in this draft, a big question started to bubble up:

What is the future of Isaiah Thomas with this team? Which is a strange thing to say about a guy who averaged 28.9 points per game and was All-NBA this season, but here we are.

First, the Celtics are not looking to trade IT this summer as some have suggested, reports Sean Deveny of the Sporting News.

That starts with All-Star Isaiah Thomas, whose name has lately been the subject of trade speculation. But league sources indicate that any talk of dealing Thomas is strictly speculation at this point — the Celtics have had no such discussions. Not yet, at least.

The challenge for the Celtics seems to be this: If they draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 (as is expected by everyone around the league), then what is the future for Thomas? Do you want to pay Thomas max money just as he turns 29 when you have a stud young point guard coming up behind him?

That led to talk of extending Thomas this summer with the team’s cap space (which assumes they do not sign Gordon Hayward). Except Thomas would rather the money be spent on free agents than himself, as he told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

“We need the best possible player that’s gonna help us win, and I’m with that,” said Thomas. “Anything Danny and this organization need me to do to help bring even more talent to this city, I’m all for that. I want to win a championship and being so close to getting to the Finals, that makes you want it that much more.

“I’m all help if they need it. I’ll be around.”

Nothing is certain in the NBA, but here is the most likely outcome of the Isaiah Thomas situation: They keep him, they draft Markelle Fultz, they do not extend Thomas (whether they land Hayward or not), and they see how it all fits together for a season. Then they make a decision on Thomas in the summer of 2018. The bottom line is he may well have more value to the Celtics than another team, and while he’s certainly getting a raise from the $6.3 million, he will make next season he may fall short of the max, and in a zone where the Celtics are willing to keep him.

In pure basketball terms, the Celtics may be hesitant to spend on Thomas, but he is also the most popular player on the team by a mile. Letting him go is not that simple.

There are a lot of questions to be answered between now and next summer when it comes to IT.