NBA season preview: L.A. Lakers

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Last Season: Failure. For a team that measures success in terms of championships, especially when it has enough talent on paper to compete at that level, 2012 just wasn’t good enough.

The Lakers struggled with depth and exited the playoffs in the second round for the second straight year, this time to a younger, more athletic, and more explosive Oklahoma City Thunder squad. This came after going a longer-than-planned seven games in the first round against a talented, yet inexperienced Nuggets team that shouldn’t have been able to push L.A. that far.

Key Departures: There were departures, though not many close observers of this Lakers team would choose the word “key” to describe them. Ramon Sessions departed for a bigger role in Charlotte, Matt Barnes switched to the less glamorous locker room down the Staples Center hallway, Josh McRoberts is now in Orlando, and Troy Murphy is just gone.

The Lakers did, of course, lose their All-Star center from a season ago in Andrew Bynum, but they acquired a replacement whom they hope will be one of the keys to returning to championship relevance.

Key Additions: Here’s where things start to get interesting. L.A. helped end our long national Dwightmare by trading for one of the game’s top-five players in Dwight Howard, giving up Bynum in the process. Howard for Bynum on its own is an improvement on paper, but not one large enough to tilt the championship odds immediately in the Lakers’ favor. The acquisition of Steve Nash, however — a two-time MVP, a master conductor of the offense and one of the game’s best shooters — might have done exactly that.

Antawn Jamison was added for some scoring assistance off the bench, and backup two-guard Jodie Meeks should provide some productivity when Kobe Bryant is getting some rest.

Three keys to the Lakers season:

1) Kobe thriving without the ball in his hands: Nash is one of the best point guards in the game, but to do what he does best, he’ll need the ball to open possessions. With Howard and Pau Gasol on the floor at the same time, there should be a number of successful offensive possessions where Bryant doesn’t even see the basketball. Obviously, this will be a major adjustment. Will Bryant choose to adapt to the new offense — one that, much like the Triangle, features motion and multiple options at every turn — or will he resist and revert to old habits of forcing isolation situations with the shot clock winding down, while his teammates stand around and watch? There’s a time for that, certainly, but with all of the weapons on this year’s roster, those situations should be the exception to the rule, rather than the rule itself.

2) Will the bench be enough? A starting five featuring Bryant, Howard, Nash, Gasol, and Metta World Peace should provide plenty of punch on both sides of the ball to win on most nights. But regular season achievements are not why this core was assembled, nor will finishing the regular season with the league’s best record mean anything if the starters are gassed for the playoffs. Bryant and Nash need to save themselves somewhat for the postseason, and limiting their minutes will only be possible if the bench doesn’t blow huge leads which force the team’s veteran stars to sub back in early in the fourth quarters of games which should have already been decided.

3) The correct utilization of Pau Gasol: From a numbers standpoint, Gasol appeared to be every bit as effective as he’d been in his seasons in L.A. that resulted in championships. But to those who watched the majority of the team’s contests, Gasol seemed uncomfortable, under-utilized, and out of place in head coach Mike Brown’s attempt at an offense.

The Lakers need to find a way to maximize Gasol’s talents, and the new Princeton offense that the team is implementing this season should go a long way in doing so. Gasol has great court awareness and is able to make the smart pass, but is also a deft scorer — both on the low block, and from mid-range distance on the perimeter. The team needs to recognize this, and perhaps watch some film of the gold medal game of this past summer’s Olympics to truly see what a force Gasol can be when given the right opportunities.

What Lakers fans should fear: Two words: Mike Brown. L.A.’s head coach used the lockout-shortened season as a constant excuse last year, lamenting the lack of practice time available for him to get his new systems installed. Well, no such excuse will be available this season, as Brown has had all summer and a full training camp to design and implement sets which will maximize his team’s talents.

The team added former NBA head coaches in Eddie Jordan and Bernie Bickerstaff to assist Brown, who has always been described as a defense-first coach. If the defense is top-five in the league, that’s great. But last year’s Lakers were middle-of-the-pack defensively, and the offense never gained the necessary cohesion to contend deep into the postseason. With all of the talent assembled for the 2012-13 run, the blame will undoubtedly fall on Brown’s shoulders if he’s unable to bring this group to the level of champions.

Prediction: Dwight Howard is an upgrade over Andrew Bynum, but the basketball IQ and shooting prowess of Steve Nash is what pushes this team over the top. Anyone predicting anything other than a trip to the Finals for this stacked Lakers squad is being delusional at worst, or contrarian at best. The Thunder return essentially all of their important pieces, and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be waiting in the East. But the amount of talent in the Lakers’ starting lineup is too much to dismiss, and they should ultimately take home the title if things go anywhere near as planned.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.

 

Celtics to get Marcus Smart back for Game 5 Tuesday

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It’s a series that has hinged on defense — Boston has played it well for the majority of five games, bottling up Milwaukee in the halfcourt. The Bucks only played it with real energy at home (and only for about six of the eight quarters the last two games) but when they do they have overwhelmed the Celtics, then converted turnovers and missed shots into transition and early clock opportunities the other way.

For Game 5 Tuesday night, Boston gets its best perimeter defender back — Marcus Smart. He has been out since before the playoffs following thumb surgery last March.

Stevens, via NBC Sports Boston:

“He hasn’t played in six weeks, so it’s hard to say how much (time he will get) but will certainly play,” Stevens said. Stevens said there would not be a minutes restriction on him, but added that the fourth-year guard wasn’t going to play 35 minutes.

Smart is a very good perimeter defender who is very physical and usually assigned to the other team’s best guard (or wing, depending upon the matchup). When Smart was on the court this season, the Celtics allowed less than a point per possession and were 3.6 points per 100 better defensively than when he sat.

Smart likely will get time against Eric Bledsoe and Kris Middleton of the Bucks. Just his presence brings needed depth to the Celtics in what is a critical Game 5 in a series tied 2-2.

Report: Pelicans have discussed offering DeMarcus Cousins less than max over two to three years

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Last month, Anthony Davis said he heard DeMarcus Cousins planned to re-sign with the Pelicans. Cousins was out a torn Achilles, and New Orleans was rolling with Davis playing more center. But New Orleans’ ceiling looked higher with Cousins, and Davis made clear he wanted to keep Cousins – in itself a big deal. More important than keeping Cousins is keeping Davis, which requires keeping Davis happy.

Then, the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers, becoming the lowest seed to sweep a first-round series.

Is everyone still sure Cousins warrants a max contract, which projects to be worth about $176 million over five years?

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Pelicans have broached internally the idea of offering Cousins a two- or three-year deal at less than the max, per sources familiar with the discussions. I would not expect that to go over well with Cousins’ camp. But the Pelicans have the dual leverage of winning without Cousins and a tepid market for him.

Only a half-dozen or so teams have max-level space this season, and most won’t pursue Cousins at that level, sources say.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pelicans leaked this to test the waters. Word will get back to Cousins, and they can gauge how strenuously he objects. If they want, they can deny ever considering this and try to avoid offending Cousins.

But New Orleans has leverage.

It will be a tight market. Many of the teams with significant cap space are young and rebuilding, and they won’t want Cousins’ attitude. Even teams ready to win might not bring him into the locker room. Returning from a torn Achilles – hard for any player – will be especially difficult for the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins.

That said, Cousins has leverage on the Pelicans, too. He’s extremely talented, and players that talented are hard to come by. New Orleans would still essentially be capped out if he walked, left with only the mid-level exception to replace him. Cousins and Davis play well together, and Davis – who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 – wants Cousins around.

Confronted with a similar situation with Jrue Holiday last summer – capped out and no mechanism to adequately replace him – the Pelicans spent big. But Holiday wasn’t hurt and didn’t have any fit concerns with Davis.

For New Orleans, it’s clearly worth securing the 27-year-old Cousins for the next couple years. The upside is too high. But, especially given the injury, guaranteeing him money into his 30s is undesirable.

On the flip side, Cousins should want long-term security. This might be his last chance to get it.

So, maybe both the Pelicans and Cousins can meet in the middle. But finding that point is never simple.