“New” Lakers still not as good as same ol’ Thunder

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This was supposed to be a statement game for the “new” Lakers — new coach, new system, new emphasis on defense and now a new point guard to organize it all. The Thunder, they didn’t change much of anything from last year.

Well, the game was a statement all right — the Thunder are much better right now. If you have any doubt that Oklahoma City is the team to beat in the West, you just need to watch them when they are clicking.

Oklahoma City was a step ahead of the Lakers starting with an 11-0 run to open the second half and they went on to a comfortable 102-93 win.

Oklahoma City was literally a step ahead — on top of its pregame white board in the locker room was the instruction to get out and run on the Lakers. Get points in transition. They did some in the first half but in the third quarter Russell Westbrook took the message to heart and changed the game.

“You’ve got to give a guy like Russell Westbrook credit,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said. “In the third quarter, he just came out, put his head down and went one on four and either scored or got fouled every time he came down the floor in that third quarter.”

Westbrook had six field goals in the third quarter — which was one more than the Lakers scored as a team. Lakers guard Ramon Sessions said the plan was to go under the pick-and-roll with Westbrook and make him shoot the jumper. Which he did — he’d use the space to make a little drive to the elbow then shoot and knock it down on his way to 36 points for the game.

After the game the Lakers tried to find solace in a first half where they were more physical and used their length to jump out to a 30-18 lead after one quarter. They tried to see a new Laker team that can compete with the Thunder when they play the right way. Andrew Bynum was very aggressive (particularly early) and had 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting, plus 13 rebounds. Kobe Bryant had 23 points but needed 25 shots to get there, with Thabo Sefolosha doing a good job forcing him off his spots.

But the old Lakers had Lamar Odom coming off the bench and the new Lakers have nobody who can change the game that way. When the Thunder bench entered in the second quarter they quickly cut the Lakers early lead in half. Derek Fisher did part of that damage with 7 points on drives and jumpers — he was in revenge mode and it made him play maybe the best he has all season.

At the half the Lakers were up 5, but the big three for the Thunder — Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden — were a combined 10-for-37. You knew things were going to change.

You knew the Thunder’s statement was coming. They made it with hustle, getting 19 offensive rebounds and seemingly every offensive rebound.

One game in March does not a potential playoff series determine, but the statements from this game are the statements we have seen these teams for a while now. The Lakers are good but they don’t seem to have all the pieces of a contender — consistent defense, weak transition defense, good bench depth at the two and four, and they still struggle to shoot consistently from the outside.

The Thunder are deeper, more athletic, more complete. And they have an energy that helps them overcome their flaws. And when all else fails they can just put their head down and run past the Lakers.

Report: Spurs paying Pau Gasol about $16 million each of next two years

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The Spurs got Pau Gasol to decline his $16,197,500 player option, allowing them to chase major free agents. They didn’t take advantage of that flexibility, so they’re re-signing Gasol to make him whole – and then some.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Sources: Free agent Pau Gasol’s deal to return to Spurs: three years, $48M with a partial guarantee on final year

If Gasol’s 2018-19 salary is guaranteed – strongly implied by this report – this is a bad contract.

The 37-year-old Gasol, still a nice player, isn’t worth $16 million this season in a tight center market. It’s fine to pay him that much given the circumstances of his opt out. But to guarantee him a similar amount – salary-cap rules dictate his 2018-19 salary be within 5% of his 2017-18 salary – at age 38 is an awful choice.

Especially for San Antonio, which was shaping up to have massive flexibility next summer.

The Spurs can still have significant cap room if LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green and/or Rudy Gay opt out. But then they wouldn’t have Aldridge, Green or Gay. So, the more space to upgrade, the better. San Antonio just cut about $16 million from that maneuverability.

Kawhi Leonard is a 26-year-old superstar who has proven his ability to thrive deep into the playoffs. Instead of aggressively working to add talent to chase another championship, the Spurs are surrounding him with the status-quo declining-veteran supporting cast.

That was acceptable this year, once Chris Paul chose the Rockets. But to commit about $16 million toward a similar team in 2018 is a major mistake.

Giannis Antetokounmpo gives views on loyalty while explaining Kevin Durant’s move

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As questions swirled about his future with the Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo tweeted that loyalty was in his DNA.

But Kevin Durant also said he was loyal to the Thunder before leaving for the Warriors.

Durant explained the appearance of a contradiction by saying he showed his loyalty by signing a contract extension without options and playing hard every night. Durant was fully loyal to Oklahoma City while he was there. To him, it didn’t mean he pledged to stay forever.

What does loyalty mean to Antetokounmpo, who once said he wanted to play in Milwaukee forever? He provided insight when asked to compare his tweet to Durant’s sentiments.

Antetokounmpo:

A lot of people say they’re go to stay on a team, and they decide to move to a different team. But you guys always got to remember that a guy might want to stay on the team, but the team doesn’t do the right things and the right moves for the player to become great. Because K.D., the reason he wanted to stay in OKC was to be the champs, right? So, did they win a championship? That’s why he decided to leave. He did win a championship down in Golden State.

This is a very rational response, one that indicates his outlook is similar to Durant’s. Nobody would question Antetokounmpo’s devotion to Milwaukee right now. But that doesn’t mean he’ll feel this way indefinitely.

The Bucks have to reciprocate by doing well for Antetokounmpo.

So far, the results have been mixed. They’ve built a solid young nucleus that includes by Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Thon Maker and Tony Snell. Jabari Parker would’ve counted if not for multiple ACL tears, which can derail a career. Luck can factor. So, it’s on Milwaukee to nail what it can control – like running the franchise without the disarray shown during its general-manager search.

Unlike the Thunder with Durant, the Bucks might be able to buy loyalty with a designated-veteran-player extension before Antetokounmpo’s contract expires in 2021. Those super-max deals didn’t exist under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, when Durant left for Golden State.

The salary cap is also stagnating, leaving it far less likely a team can duplicate the situation the Warriors’ presented Durant – a ready-made championship contender with max cap space. Relatively, the Bucks probably won’t have to look quite as appealing to be Antetokounmpo’s best option.

But they’ll still have to create some allure.

It sounds as if Antetokounmpo’s loyalty to the Bucks is, quite reasonably, conditional.

Gordon Hayward: My relationship with Brad Stevens ‘completely overstated and overhyped’

AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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Gordon Hayward is still trying to seize control of the narrative surrounding his free agency.

The Celtics – coached by Brad Stevens, Hayward’s coach at Butler – expressed interest in Hayward in 2014. Then, with Stevens still in Boston, they completed their highly anticipated pursuit of Hayward by signing him this year.

Just don’t pin that all on Stevens.

Hayward on The Woj Pod:

The relationship between Brad and I has been completely overstated and overhyped from everybody.

And you mentioned it. There was always rumors about going to Boston, and those, to me, were always just rumors. I didn’t really ever think about it, because I wasn’t a free agent, wasn’t really concerned with the Boston thing. But everybody else was saying, “Oh, he’s going to go to Boston because of Brad.” And we had a great relationship, but it wasn’t like we were constantly texting each other or calling each other. He’s the head coach of the Boston Celtics. He’s got things to worry about.

I played for Brad for two years. And so it wasn’t like everybody kind of made it seem, like we were besties or something.

That was something I kind of was – “what’s this going to be like? It’s been seven years since he coached me.” And immediately though, he called me July 1. And after that phone call, I thought like, “Oh, no. This isn’t going be any different.” It was one of those things where he made me feel like, even if I don’t go to Boston, it’ll be fine, and we’ll still have that great relationship, and he’ll still be in my corner, and he’ll still be rooting for me and supporting me.

Hayward was in control, and he chose Boston. Stevens didn’t do it for him. Hayward did it – and he did it the evening of July 4, not before.

Got it?

That darned fake news, always talking up the Hayward-Stevens relationship. Take this article in The Players Tribune, in which the author contends Hayward viewed Stevens as “the person I knew I could count on the most.”

Look, NBA players generally like the trappings of being recruited. They generally dislike the perception that they were recruited and weren’t in complete control. That’s why Kevin Durant keeps denying Draymond Green‘s stories of recruiting the superstar to the Warriors.

Elements of Hayward’s relationship with Stevens were probably perceived incorrectly by some. I doubt the Celtics’ coach was in frequent contact with a Jazz player. But the underlying idea – that Stevens made Boston more likely to pursue and get Hayward – was also probably correct.

Report: Cavaliers prioritizing youth in Kyrie Irving trade

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In the wake of Kyrie Irving‘s trade request, the Cavaliers have three fundamental options:

  • Trade Irving for immediate help to continue a championship chase around LeBron James
  • Trade Irving for younger players and/or draft picks to kick start a rebuild in case LeBron leaves next summer
  • Don’t trade Irving

It seems Cleveland is taking the second route.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Cavaliers are projecting confidence they can snare a king’s ransom for Kyrie Irving, and more than that, they are acting — for now — as if a trade is almost inevitable, and that there is little chance of salvaging their relationship with him, according to several sources familiar with the situation.

Cleveland is seeking a bundle of assets, but the highest priority right now is snagging a blue-chip young player, according to sources across the league. That is not necessarily a signal they think James is leaving. They would like to get everything: one or two veterans who can help LeBron dethrone Golden State, that blue-chipper, and picks. They want to prepare for a worst-case scenario of LeBron leaving without shoving him out the door by acquiring players he deems unready. Even so, the blue-chipper appears to be their guidepost, sources say.

Barring a misevaluation by another team, Cleveland can’t trade Irving for better players now and significant long-term assets. The Cavaliers could try to straddle both paths, but the more they prioritize the future, the less they’ll get for the present (and vice versa).

I’m a little surprised the Cavs aren’t posturing about not trading Irving to drive up his value – especially after the leak – and I’m surprised they’re not pushing in for next year. A championship lasts forever, and they’re still contending.

But it seems they’ve chosen their course. The big danger: It reduces their ability to win this year and pushes LeBron further out the door.

Reading that description of Cleveland’s target, does anyone fit better than Andrew Wiggins – whom, in a strange twist, the Cavaliers drafted then traded for Kevin Love? The 22-year-old is seen by many as a rising star, and his value is in Irving’s general range. Plus, not only did Irving list the Timberwolves among his preferred teams, Jimmy Butler (a friend) and Karl-Anthony Towns are urging Minnesota management to deal for Irving.

The Wiggins we’ve seen so far – an underwhelming defender and 3-point shooter – would fit poorly with LeBron. Wiggins is young enough to develop and adjust, but LeBron’s free agency is only a year away. It’s a dangerous time to take a step back.

But if the Cavs are going to trade Irving for a young player, that’s almost certainly what they must do.