Lakers’ backs against wall after Thunder hands L.A. sixth straight loss

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“I told the team that the biggest thing is that our season starts Sunday,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after the latest in a parade of losses. “And we have got one run and have one shot at it and they need to get ready mentally and physically.”

That is the sound of a desperate coach. A coach who knows his team needs wins right now, needs to win two-thirds of its games from here on out to have a chance of even making the playoffs.

Lakers fans have been mentally in that desperate space for a while now, but it felt and sounded like the Lakers team is finally getting there after getting thumped 116-101 by a genuine contender in the Oklahoma City Thunder Friday night. Kevin Durant had a season high 42 points. Russell Westbrook had 27 points and 10 assists. Oklahoma defended, ran the break, executed with crispness, and basically did whatever they wanted. Oklahoma City was up 16 at halftime and the game felt like glorified garbage time in the second half.

The Lakers have plenty of excuses — they were without Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol again in this game, plus now comes the news Jordan Hill will be out for the season with hip surgery. Westbrook’s eyes lit up when asked what it was like to turn the corner and not see the Lakers’ seven-footers protecting the rim, but he caught himself and just said it was “different.”

“It’s true, but people aren’t going to remember all the excuses of the season,” said Kobe Bryant, who finished with 28 points but on 8-of-23 shooting.

The Lakers have had injury excuses all season but the fact is with this loss they fall to 15-21. They will need to go better than 30-16 the rest of the way to make the playoffs (that record would get them to 45 wins, which is the lowest number the West’s eighth seed has had in five years). And remember they still have the Grammy road trip ahead of them.

But more than that, Friday night’s drubbing was evidence of just how far away from a contender the Lakers are right now. And how much better the Thunder are even than last season.

Early on, with fresh legs, the Lakers starters hung around in the game. Then the run everyone knew the Thunder would go on came with a Thabo Sefolosha three and a Durant runner in the lane. Suddenly it was a 9-point OKC lead.

But at the end of the first quarter the Lakers fought back to tie it up with a stretch of good defense — an Antawn Jamison steal under the basket, an Earl Clark block of Serge Ibaka, a Kobe steal. They tied the game at 25.

But the problem for the Lakers all season has been the defense has only been good in stretches. Then it goes away.

It went away in the second quarter — Oklahoma City put up 39 points quarter shooting 70 percent. They got shots in the lane, they were draining threes and most of their shots seem to be open ones created off the dribble or with the extra pass. The Thunder shot 59.1 percent for the first half, were up 16 at the break and the game was all over but the shouting.

Durant was 10-of-15 shooting for 25 points in the first half, and he was fired up. He drove around Earl Clark at one point and just threw down a dunk then displayed the kind of anger we don’t usually see from the NBA’s golden child.

“We moved the ball so well,” Durant said. “We were finding open shots, guys were getting into the lane.”

And when that didn’t work, Durant or Westbrook would just blow by their defender off the dribble. Westbrook in particular looked sharp with his game. And the Lakers lacked any real rim protection to slow them.

“Well they have a good team but like I say you can’t expect to be at your best when you don’t have your best players on the floor,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “There is just no way around that. When you get them back it takes time to gel and get rhythm and chemistry.”

The Lakers just don’t have that time anymore. And they know it.

Whether they can do anything about it remains to be seen.

John Wall calls J.J. Barea ‘little midget’, Barea says Wizards teammates dislike Wall

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J.J. Barea got hit with a technical foul for jawing with John Wall during the Mavericks’ win over the Wizards yesterday.

The trash talk only intensified after the game.

Wall, via Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington:

“It was cool. It was funny. It was just a little midget trying to get mad. So, I paid him no mind.”

Barea, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“Now I have somebody in the NBA that I don’t like,” Barea said. “That’s my first. I don’t like him at all now. But I don’t think his teammates like him, either. So it’s nothing new for him.”

Barea is short, listed at 6-foot.

Do Wall’s teammates dislike him? A lot of that perception stems from his relationship with Bradley Beal, and it seems their biggest troubles are behind them. But the chemistry in Washington isn’t quite right. The latest evidence:

The Wizards got outscored by a whopping 20 points while diminutive J.J. Barea was on the court last night.

And that’s how you burn the burners.

LeBron James congratulates himself, ‘Young King,’ on reaching 30,000 points later tonight

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The Cavaliers have lost nine of 12. Prominent Cleveland players are raising concerns about the roster. Rumors are swirling about coach Tyronn Lue getting fired. The locker room is in disarray. Some Cavs are even pointing the finger at LeBron James himself.

And this is what LeBron posts to Instagram hours before tonight’s Cavaliers-Spurs game:

Wanna be one of the first to Congratulate you on this accomplishment/achievement tonight that you’ll reach! Only a handful has reach/seen it too and while I know it’s never been a goal of yours from the beginning try(please try) to take a moment for yourself on how you’ve done it! The House you’re about to be apart of has only 6 seats in it(as of now) but 1 more will be added and you should be very proud and honored to be invited inside. There’s so many people to thank who has help this even become possible(so thank them all) and when u finally get your moment(alone) to yourself smile, look up to the higher skies and say THANK YOU! So with that said, Congrats again Young King 🤴🏾! 1 Love! #striveforgreatness🚀 #thekidfromakron👑

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

LeBron is just seven points from 30,000. The only players to score so much in their careers: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Dirk Nowitzki.

It’ll be a nice milestone for LeBron, but he darn well better score those seven points tonight. Not getting there tonight would be the simplest way to make this even more insufferable.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr., Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo and Larry Nance Jr. to compete in dunk contest

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. already looked like he was competing in the dunk contest.

Apparently, he’ll put those skills to use in the real thing.

And so will Aaron Gordon (Magic), Victor Oladipo (Pacers) and Larry Nance Jr. (Lakers).

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Oliver Maroney of Uproxx:

The number of contestants in the dunk contest has varied, but it’s been four the last few years. So, this might be the entire field – and it’d be a strong one.

Gordon narrowly lost to Zach LaVine in an epic dunk contest a couple years ago. Oladipo brings star power, as he’ll probably play in the actual All-Star game. Nance has the pedigree, and I bet he involves his dad – who won the NBA’s first dunk contest in 1984 – in a dunk. Smith is the young up-and-comer with the first platform to prove himself nationally.

I can’t wait.

Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awful to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already be Jokic’s time already.