Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard

Five things the Lakers should do on their summer vacation (starting with re-signing Howard)

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The San Antonio Spurs didn’t just end the Lakers season, they put Los Angeles out of its misery.

That was the first time the Lakers have been swept in the first round of the playoffs since 1967, but you could see it coming for a long time. From the injuries during training camp, to the firing of a coach five games into the season, to the hiring of a new coach with a radically different philosophy and style that didn’t match the roster, to more injuries, to fan dissatisfaction, to Kobe Bryant blowing out his Achilles, it was all building to this ugly sweep by the Spurs.

The question now is how do the Lakers spend their summer vacation? What steps do they take to become the contenders they thought they were back in October.

Here are five suggestions.

1) Re-sign Dwight Howard. This has to be the Lakers top priority. And it’s second. And third. The fact of the matter is there are not many franchise anchor players you can find out there and — despite what some Lakers fans and a few pundits seem to think — Howard is one of those. He is a guy the Lakers can build around. He can bring the defense and rebounding you need as a foundation for winning.

The Lakers can offer one more guaranteed year and $30 million more guaranteed dollars. But more than that they can offer the chance not only at rings but also rings won on the biggest NBA stage. That contending should start next season with Kobe Bryant back and a re-worked roster, but beyond that as well with a team built around Howard. Remember everybody save Steve Nash comes off the Lakers books in the summer of 2014 and Los Angeles can rebuild the roster completely then around Howard. That is the sales pitch. And as I’ve said before, I think it’s one he buys.

But for fun, let’s say the naysayers are right and Howard can’t carry the mantle of the Lakers — they still have to resign him this summer. Even if he doesn’t work out you need him as trade bait to restock the roster in a couple years. Let him walk and the Lakers have a very old, very unathletic roster and Lakers fans had better like rebuilding through the lottery for a few years.

2) Decide on the fate of Mike D’Antoni. Soon. I’m not sure there is much of a decision here — Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has made it clear in the mast Mike D’Antoni is coming back next season.

The only way I see that changing is because of issue No. 1 above — if Dwight Howard tells the Lakers he can’t see himself playing for D’Antoni there will be a change. I doubt that happens — Howard is already trying to shake a coach-killer reputation with Stan Van Gundy in Orlando — but that’s the only way the Lakers have a different coach next season.

3) If you’re keeping D’Antoni, get him a roster more fitting his style. Despite what some thing, I believe Howard and D’Antoni can co-exist and win a lot. Howard can provide the defense in the paint D’Antoni wants. Plus Howard also both runs the floor well and is very good in the pick-and-roll. D’Antoni needs to trust him in the post more, but this can work.

But if one thing was clear this year it is that the Lakers roster needs changes to fit what will work They must get better defense on the perimeter, more athleticism, they must get younger, and better shooting from the arc.

Howard, like any big man, is not going to create his own shot and if the Lakers are going to keep him they need a counterbalance on the outside. A healthy Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant certainly help with that, but the Lakers will need more than just them. They need depth of guys on the perimeter.

Against the Spurs, San Antonio just fought to take away post position and collapsed their defense down on Howard and the Lakers. This is not on Howard — in today’s NBA, with zone defenses allowed, the help to double big men in the post is much closer and comes faster than it did back in the days of Shaquille O’Neal. The passing angles out change, too. Watch how the Spurs (or Heat or Knicks or…) move the ball inside out, strong to weak to get a good shot. The Lakers need to do that and need the players who can make it happen.

4) Trade Pau Gasol? Maybe. If the Lakers are going to rework the roster they need to consider moving Gasol, because he is the most tradable asset on their roster. As discussed the Lakers need athleticism, shooters and better fits with the D’Antoni system and Gasol is the best way to do that.

But the problem is salary — the Lakers have painstakingly cleared out a lot of cap space for the summer of 2014.Only Steve Nash and Howard (if he re-signs) would be on the books, letting the Lakers reshape the roster around Howard. But that means in any trades they can’t take any multi-year contracts back, which makes finding a trading partner all the more difficult. It’s why Gasol wasn’t moved at the deadline.

The Lakers will not shop Gasol until the Howard situation is resolved. But shop him they will, they just may not find a partner they want to do business with.

5) Amnesty Metta World Peace. Even for the wealthy Lakers and their massive local cable television deal the $100 million payroll they had last year and the $85 million in taxes it would bring next year (under stiffer tax penalties, part of the new CBA) would be a large bill to pay. (Don’t forget, the Lakers could have up to $40 million in revenue sharing, too.)

The Lakers are not going to amnesty Kobe or Gasol, but they might amnesty Metta World Peace, who is set to make $7.7 million next year and could net the Lakers as much as $20 million in salary and tax savings (depending on how the Lakers fill out the roster). Filling his production would not be easy, but this is a move the Lakers must consider.

And once the Lakers do those five things, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss should go to their local church and light a candle, praying for health.

Report: Timberwolves signing Toure’ Murry and John Lucas III

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 08: John Lucas III #15 of the Chicago Bulls drives against Elton Brand #42 of the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the United Center on May 8, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the 76ers 77-69. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Alert: Kick your Ricky Rubio trade theories into gear.

The Timberwolves, despite saying they’d keep Rubio for now, are acting like they might not. Minnesota is reportedly signing a couple point guards: Toure’ Murry and John Lucas III.

The Timberwolves already have 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries, including three point guards: Rubio, Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones. Keeping Murry or Lucas would require a roster move.

It could be Kevin Garnett retiring, buying out Nikola Pekovic or some smaller trade. But unless that minor deal involves Jones – Dunn, the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft, isn’t going anywhere – Minnesota would still have enough point guards. Most teams carry three.

The Timberwolves obviously aren’t trading Rubio because they have Murry and Lucas. But Murry or Lucas would help if Minnesota trades Rubio.

Lucas had his best season with Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls, and he can create instant offense in Thibodeau’s grind-it-out scheme. Murry has the length to make an impact defensively.* Most importantly, both play extremely hard – an especially big deal to Thibodeau.

*Murry’s size also allows him to play the wing, which offers him another avenue for sticking. But his frame, special for a point guard, is merely ordinary at shooting guard or small forward.

The Timberwolves still might not be quite ready to trade Rubio. But if Minnesota does deal him to slide Dunn into the starting lineup, Murry or Lucas would provide a decent contingency with Jones in reserve.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey: James Harden ‘only a polarizing figure to people who don’t watch’

Daryl Morey, James Harden
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Do you struggle with evaluating James Harden?

I know I do.

Harden’s Rockets, projected by some to contend for a championship, struggled to a 41-41 record last season. A fair share of their downfall could be pinned on him.

His defensive disinterest is appalling, and it sets a tone. His leadership is questionable, which matters a great deal for someone so empowered. He relies on tricking referees to draw fouls, frequently hooking his defender to create contact.

But I still put him on my All-NBA team, because his offense was so darned effective.

Elite individual offensive contributions are incredibly valuable. Harden’s defensive shortcomings can be hidden in a better team scheme. His leadership issues would matter less in a better team culture. But you can’t simply create what Harden provides offensively.

Long story short, Harden can be tricky to assess no matter how deeply you dive into his plusses and minuses.

Unless you ask Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

Morey, via Oliver Maroney of Basketball Insiders:

“He’s only a polarizing figure to people who don’t watch,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “Players voted him MVP [in 2014-15] for a reason. He’s had a winning team every season of his career, with multiple Conference Finals appearances.”

Morey has long defended Harden. That’s what general managers do for the superstar they acquired in tenure-defining trades.

But Morey also put his money where his mouth is. The Rockets will pay Harden an extra $20 million over the next two seasons just to get him locked up one extra year – and that extra year will cost about a max salary.

For better or worse, the Rockets are all in with Harden.

I think that’s a good plan given the alternatives, but I’m also not so sold on Harden that I find it foolproof.

51 Questions: Who is better, Bulls or Knicks?

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 31: Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls looses control of the ball after being hit by Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks at the United Center on October 31, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Knicks 82-81. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Today PBT launches its 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). And we start with a fun topic:

Who is better, the Bulls or the Knicks?

Two proud franchises in two of the nation’s biggest markets, with two fan bases that demand results (but haven’t gotten them lately). Those fan bases are restless because we are talking about two franchises that disappointed and missed the playoffs last season.

That put a lot of pressure on the front offices of the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, and both were aggressive making changes this summer — Chicago traded Derrick Rose to New York, in one of the bigger deals of the offseason.

Expectations are high in New York and Chicago, with the playoffs considered a baseline.

But did those teams improve that much? Will either make the playoffs?

And which team is better?

Forced to choose, I’d say the Bulls. Barely.

Both are going to be in a battle with other teams — Washington, Charlotte, Miami, Milwaukee, maybe Atlanta,— for the final few playoff spots in the East. Both teams could conceivably miss the playoffs again.

Sorry Derrick Rose, your Knicks are not a superteam.

Rose is the common thread between these two team’s summers.

The Bulls needed to choose between him and Jimmy Butler, and they wisely chose the younger and, at this point, just flat out better Butler. It was the only call (outside trading both for a bottom-out rebuild, which wouldn’t have been wise). The Bulls traded Rose away then proceeded to surround Butler with older guards — Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo — who are not great defenders, have had injury issues, don’t space the floor with their shooting, and need the ball in their hands to be their best. They also added a solid big man in Robin Lopez to the paint, he should at least block some of the shots from opposing wings who blow by Rondo and Wade.

Wade can still score — he averaged 19 points a game last season and showed in the playoffs (and other short stretches) he can put a team on his back and still be a force. He’s not vintage Wade, but he hasn’t slipped as far as critics suggest — most nights now he is good, not great. The knee maintenance program from Miami that had Wade resting some nights (although fewer last season) needs to come north and be part of the plan for him in Chicago.

The Bulls have decent raw talent and depth with Butler, Wade, Lopez, Taj Gibson (at least until he is traded), Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell, Bobby Portis, and Denzel Valentine. That’s why I have them just slightly ahead of the Knicks. But there are real questions about the fit of this roster. They are going to have defensive holes on the perimeter. On offense, there isn’t near enough shooting to keep opposing teams from just packing the paint and taking away driving lanes for Wade and Butler. (It’s why I think Mirotic will have to start and get heavy minutes with the first unit, they need the floor spacing shooting, the downside is he hurts the defense.) None of this fits what coach Fred Hoiberg ideally wants to run, and does the young coach have the force of personality to keep this team pulling the same direction on the rope?

The Knicks were the team that took on Derrick Rose — then landed Joakim Noah as well. Combine them with Carmelo Anthony and, if this were 2011, they would be title favorites.

The Knicks starting five could be quite good: Rose, Courtney Lee, Anthony (fresh off the Olympics), Kristaps Porzingis, and Noah. But will that group even play 50 games together healthy? If the starters are together for 60-plus games this season, the Knicks almost certainly are a playoff team (and better than the Bulls). But we all know the injury history: Rose missed 244 games in the last five seasons and is not nearly the explosive MVP version of himself, while Noah has missed 68 games the past two seasons and does not move like the Defensive Player of the Year anymore. Anthony has had his injury issues too. That trio could well fall below Knicks’ fans expectations.

Also, none of those guys seem ready to run like new coach Jeff Hornacek wants. The depth behind that starting five is unimpressive, with Brandon Jennings at the point being the best one of the bunch. When those starters start missing games — or just when the starters go to the bench — the Knicks drop off fast. This was a 32-win team last season, how much better did they really get?

Two things could have me underestimating the Knicks. One is Porzingis. He was impressive as a rookie and on his way to being very good, but how big a leap does he make this season? He will certainly be improved, he remains the future Knicks fans build altars to, and if he makes a bigger leap than I predict (which is possible) he can carry this team to the playoffs.

Second, this is contract year Derrick Rose — does he rise to the occasion? Will he be healthier, a better jump shooter, and just more creative than we have seen in recent years.

The bottom line: Both of these teams will be hovering around .500 and in a scramble for the playoffs. Both teams made short-term moves that don’t make a lot of long-term sense considering they have good young pieces to build around. Both fan bases expect more than these teams are going to deliver.

The Bulls depth should have them playing slightly better. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Of course, the real answer to all questions about who is better in the East should just be answered “Cleveland.”

Jazz guarantee more than $1 million to No. 52 pick Joel Bolomboy, a rare commitment to someone drafted so low

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 18:  Joel Bolomboy #21 of the Weber State Wildcats handles the ball in the first half against the Xavier Musketeers during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 18, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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In the first five years of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, two players drafted in the 50s received a $1 million guarantee the same offseason they were selected.

This year, the list has doubled.

The Cavaliers guaranteed $1 million to No. 54 pick Kay Felder, and No. 52 pick Joel Bolomboyjust signed by the Jazz – will get even more.

Bolomboy’s $600,000 salary this season is fully guaranteed, and $452,625 of his salary next season is guaranteed, according to Basketball Insiders. That’s a grand total of $1,052,625 guaranteed on a three-year contract.

Only Tornike Shengelia (No. 54 pick in 2012 from Nets) and Kris Joseph (No. 51 pick in 2012 from Celtics) got more as players picked in the 50s who signed the same offseason under the current CBA. Both received two fully guaranteed seasons.

Bolomboy successfully leveraged a salary-cap environment relatively more favorable to second-rounders than first-rounders. If Utah didn’t make him such a favorable offer, he could’ve accepted the required tender and become a free agent within a year – with numerous potentially offering him a contract. The Jazz, with more cap space than they know what do with, probably didn’t mind paying Bolomboy a little more to secure him at what’s still a low rate for the next three years.

This likely wraps up any preseason competition in Utah for a regular-season roster spot. Bolomboy becomes the 15th Jazz player with a guaranteed 2016-17 salary, so he’ll almost certainly stick beyond the preseason – another plus of this contract.

This gives him security as he tries to develop into a player worthy of a second – presumably higher-paying – NBA contract.