The Lakers are right on schedule, but is it too late?

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Picture this: Steve Nash dribbles up court, surveying the floor. As he crosses half court, he maneuvers towards the three point line. Once there, Dwight Howard comes and sets a pick and rolls hard to the basket but doesn’t get the ball. Nash probes the defense, dribbling into the paint and underneath the hoop, spotting Kobe Bryant open on the wing. Kobe raises to shoot a jumper but instead rifles a pass to a wide open Howard under the hoop who catches the pass for a dunk.

Or picture this: Kobe is hounding the opposing point guard full court. Before the ball handler gets to the timeline, he’s been turned multiple times, his pattern up the floor an inefficient zig-zag. With the shot clock winding down, the ball goes to the wing. That player, feeling pressure from Metta World Peace, tries to drive and get a shot off before the help arrives. But Howard swoops in, alters the shot, and then secures the rebound.

Or this: Nash is pushing the ball up court, looking to improvise. Defenders are retreating and recovering to the paint while still trying to find their men in semi-transition. On one wing is Kobe. On the other is Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark. Howard is trailing the action but running well, looking for the ball should the action slow. Nash veers left towards Kobe, but instead fires a pass to Clark. As a defender chases the ball, Clark instantly passes to Jamison in the corner who shoots, and sinks, an uncontested three pointer.

Actually, you don’t have to just picture them — these are sequences from the last three Lakers’ games. It’s the middle of January and they’re finally starting to get it. This is good news, right?

Before the season started, this was the timeline many thought the Lakers would be operating on. With a team of players turned over by half — including some big name acquisitions — they’d need time to find their collective stride. With Howard still recovering from his back surgery, the expectations were that the team would start somewhat slowly. Give them time to heal, to jell, to build up that familiarity that all teams need to reach their peak. Once that happened, they’d start to string together good performances and become a terror that teams would want to avoid.

The Lakers are getting closer to being that team. The defense is improving. The offense, though efficient for the entire season, is staring to show more fluidity. Players are communicating better and seem to be on the same page. And while there are still hurdles to clear — What to do with Pau Gasol? How to mix their lineups effectively? Do they sure up their bench?  — the list of positives with this team is finally starting to outweigh the negatives. They are making progress. Lots of it.

The only problem is the hole they’ve dug themselves in the process of getting to this point. The moral victories are piling up, but the Lakers need real victories to sustain them. They currently sit 5 games below .500 with 17 wins and 22 losses. They’re the 11th seed in the West with only a half a season left to play. So as much as D’Antoni would love to hit the reset button on this season, the Lakers’ season did not, in fact, start this past Sunday.

The time to turn their season around was weeks ago, but is only starting to happen now. Do the Lakers have enough time left?

Over the past 4 seasons, the 8th seed in the Western Conference has averaged 48 wins. For the Lakers to get to that mark, they would need to close with the season with a 31-12 push. Possible? Yes. Plausible? The friendliest response would say maybe. A neutral observer would say it’s pretty unlikely.

There is a formula for the Lakers to reach their goal of making the post-season. If they can get above the .500 mark by the all-star break they’d put themselves in position to make one last push to sneak in as the 8th seed. In Phil Jackson’s last year with the team, the Lakers came out of the all-star break winning 19 of 20 games before injuries saw them sputter into the playoffs. Is this team capable of making that type of push from the middle of February into March?

The way the team is playing now does make it seem anything is possible. If observed in a vacuum, their improvement on offense and recommitment to defense is the foundation of a team that can rattle off a bunch of wins in a short amount of time. Of course, this season isn’t taking place in a vacuum.

Funny how things work. The Lakers are starting to play well, right on the schedule we thought they would. But because of how bad they were to start the year, it may still be too late.

Tim Hardaway Jr.’s reported reaction to Knicks’ $71 million offer: ‘Man, that’s crazy’

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Knicks acting (now long-term) front-office leader Steve Mills signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million offer sheet shocked some within the Knicks.

It also apparently shocked someone who wasn’t (yet) with New York – Hardaway himself.

Pablo Torre on ESPN:

I was talking to somebody who would know about the Tim Hardaway Jr. scenario. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s first words after signing that contract: “Man, that’s crazy.”

In the likely event Hardaway doesn’t live up to this massive contract, he’ll get blamed – and the scorn will be hotter in New York.* That’s not fair, as Hardaway was just taking the money offered to him. He wasn’t getting anywhere near that much anywhere else. But it is reality.

*It’s a lesson Kyrie Irving, who could land anywhere, could stand to remember as he reportedly hopes for the Knicks to trade for him.

As hilarious as Hardaway’s response was, it doesn’t top Tyler Johnson for my favorite reaction to a loaded offer sheet.

Report: As Kyrie Irving rumors swirl, Timberwolves still negotiating extension with Andrew Wiggins

AP Photo/Jim Mone
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The Timberwolves were working on a contract extension for Andrew Wiggins.

Then, Kyrie Irving‘s trade request became public. He reportedly listed Minnesota among his preferred destinations. Jimmy Butler (a friend of Irving’s) and Karl-Anthony Towns have petitioned Timberwolves management to add Irving, and the team is exploring a deal. Wiggins fits perfectly what Cleveland is said to be seeking.

So, where do extension talks stand now?

Darren Wolfson of

The Timberwolves could simultaneously be exploring multiple paths. They might want to trade for Irving, even if it means including Wiggins. They might want an extension lined up with Wiggins in case they don’t. They’re not committed to either direction until they finalize something.

They’re not even committed to keeping Wiggins if they extend him.

It’d complicate an Irving trade, to be sure. Wiggins outgoing salary would still count as his actual salary ($7,574,323), but his incoming salary to Cleveland would count as the average annual salary of the entire deal – the final season of his rookie-scale contract and the extension years both included.

But there’s no time period after signing Wiggins to a rookie-scale extension where the Timberwolves would be prohibited from trading him. He could also sign an extension with the Cavs anytime between a trade and Oct. 16. Minnesota might be assessing Wiggins’ extension demands on behalf of Cleveland, which would surely be interested in extending him in accordance with a trade.

If the Timberwolves actually sign Wiggins to an extension, that’d send a big signal they don’t plan to trade him for Irving – but even that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Until a deal becomes official or more concrete word leaks of Minnesota’s plan, I wouldn’t assume a Wiggins-for-Irving deal is off the table.

Report: Kyrie Irving ‘very badly’ wants trade to Knicks

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Kyrie Irving, who grew up in New Jersey, listed the Knicks among his preferred destinations in a trade.

Is New York his top choice?

Pablo Torre on ESPN:

I got a phone call, and the voice on the other end of that phone call is a trustworthy person. And he was saying to me that Kyrie Irving very badly wants to be a New York Knick. Kyrie Irving wants to come home.

Irving is less valuable than Kristaps Porzingis and more valuable than Carmelo Anthony, and the Knicks can’t easily bridge either gap. They reportedly won’t trade Porzingis for Irving, a wise move. Anthony – who possesses a no-trade clause – is reportedly set on the Rockets. An Irving trade would almost certainly have to be centered around one of those two players.

Maybe Cleveland can work its way into a multi-team trade with Anthony going to Houston, but it’s unclear where the assets the Cavs are seeking would come from.

When Irving requested a trade, he should have known he’d lose control of the process. Locked up for two more years and without a no-trade clause, Irving has minimal sway. His relationship with the Cavaliers looks increasingly unworkable, but they could deal him anywhere.

That said, I can see why he’d want to go to New York – big market in his home area, a team he could take over. Even as Porzingis grows in stature, he’s not a ball-dominant player who’d step on Irving’s toes.

But this just feels like a Stephon Marbury redux. From owner James Dolan down, the Knicks are poorly run, and their stars – beloved when welcomed – usually leave with their reputations damaged.

By the way, what happened to the Spurs being Irving’s top choice? In a situation like this, sometimes people close to the player have differing preferences and leak accordingly. That could have just been someone near Irving pushing for his or her choice for the guard – and this could be, too.

If players thought this year’s free agent market was tight, next summer could be “nuclear winter”

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Plenty of agents spent this summer trying to explain to their clients that the summer of 2017 was not the summer of 2016 (one I know of even was thanking media members in Las Vegas who wrote about how tight the free agent market had gotten so he could show his clients). Players saw the ridiculous contracts of 2016 — Timofey Mozgov got four-years, $64 million; Bismack Biyombo got four years, almost $70 million; and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, players deep into rosters were overpaid — and thought this summer it would be their turn.

Except it wasn’t. In 2016 the salary cap spiked from $70 million to $94 million and that meant 27 teams entered free agency under the cap (and the teams over it spent big to re-sign their own), and $5 billion in contracts were handed out. This summer, 14 teams were under the $99 million cap and about $3 billion was handed out — and once the stars such as James Harden got paid big, the market dried up and players got less than expected. Four-time All-Star and elite defender Paul Millsap would have been a clear max a year ago, he could “only” get three years (at age 31) at $4 million less than his max. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would have been a lock max in 2016, he signed a one-year deal with the Lakers for $18 million this summer. And further down the list guys like Rajon Rondo are signing team-friendly deals.

And next summer is going to be a far tighter market. As Tim MacMahon and Bobby Marks of ESPN point out, the free agent class of 2018 is going to pay for the excess of 2016.

The early projections for 2018-19: nine teams with cap space, and potentially 10 teams paying luxury tax.

“The real story is the nuclear winter for free agents coming next year,” one team executive with authority to make personnel decisions told ESPN. “Teams planned the last two summers for the cap to be much higher. The fact that it went way down from the projections crushed teams.”

Another general manager put it this way to ESPN:

“What I see all the time is players not understanding why, ‘This player got this, but I get that?’ They want it to make sense and it just doesn’t make sense. I think you’ll see a lot of agents get fired.

“The top guys will always feed first and then the year of the cap spike, there was a lot left for everybody else to feed. Next year, the top players will still get theirs, and then there will be not much left.”

NBA teams are not going to negotiate deals off the mistakes of 2016, they see that as the outlier to be ignored.

The Summer of 2018 is loaded with top free agents who are going to get max contract offers from their own teams and those with enough cap space to try and poach them — LeBron James, Kevin Durant (he will re-sign with Warriors), Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Chris Paul, DeMarcus Cousins, plus restricted guys who could see max deals such as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. There’s even a second tier of guys who will be maxed out or close to it — Andrew Wiggins (extension eligible right now), DeAndre Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, and others.

But that next tier down? How much will teams pay for Robert Covington? Aaron Gordon? Clint Capela? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Danny Green? And for guys counting on the one-year deals they signed this summer to boost their stock — we can use Derrick Rose as an example — even if they play well they may not see the money they expect.

The league and owners had wanted to smooth in the salary cap spike of 2016, raising it fair amount over three or five years to avoid the spending spree, but the players’ union rejected that idea. For the free agents in the summer of 2016 that worked out well. For the ones in the 2018… not so much.