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.

Eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard: “I have a lot left in the tank”

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — At 31 and entering his 14th NBA season, eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard says his best basketball is ahead of him.

Wearing a teal suit with black trim, a smiling Howard insisted Monday he can return to being a dominant center with the Charlotte Hornets, where he will be reunited with coach Steve Clifford and play for one of his childhood heroes, team owner Michael Jordan.

“A lot of people have written me off, which is great because it’s going to make me work even harder,” Howard said during his introductory news conference. “I’m just looking forward to this opportunity because I have a lot left in the tank.”

This will be Howard’s third team in three seasons.

The Atlanta Hawks, his hometown team, traded him to Charlotte one year into a three-year, $74 million contract. Howard said he has no hard feelings, adding that “sometimes things just don’t work out.”

But he’s confident Charlotte is the right fit.

“I think I’m a lot healthier than I have been in the past five years and I think this is going to be my best time,” Howard said. “I’m a lot wiser now, stronger mentally and physically, and I’m in the right place with a great coach, a great GM and the GOAT (greatest of all time). So I think this is the perfect opportunity.”

Much of Howard’s optimism stems from being reunited with Clifford.

They worked together for seven seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles, and the 6-foot-11 three-time Defensive Player of the Year loves Clifford’s defense-first mentality. He’s also confident Clifford will put him in the right situations to succeed on offense.

“He understands me,” Howard said. “… He was always there for me and not once did he turn his back on me or talk bad about me. He was very positive and he was somebody that I have always trusted in.”

The feeling is mutual.

Clifford said he’s never coached a player smarter than Howard when it comes to understanding defensive coverages. While Howard has incredible athletic ability, Clifford said, he’s never been given the credit he deserves for playing a “thinking man’s game.”

“Smart always wins in the NBA,” Clifford said.

Howard is expected to start in Charlotte alongside All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, guard Nic Batum and forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams. Cody Zeller, last year’s starting center, is expected to come off the bench for the Hornets but still see significant minutes.

Howard said he’s learned a lot over the past 13 seasons.

“Over the years a lot of things have been said and I’ve not said anything back,” Howard said. “Somehow things that weren’t true kept getting stirred up, and that gave a lot of people wrong opinions about who I was as a person. I should be the one speaking up for myself instead of allowing other people to do that.”

In Charlotte, Howard becomes the second big-name athlete to be known as “Superman,” joining former NFL MVP quarterback Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.

Both are from the Atlanta area and have met a couple of times but aren’t close friends. Howard said he’s eager to connect with Newton and get to know him better.

“We have the same attitude; we love to win, but we want to have fun,” Howard said.

 

As expected, Timberwolves waive Jordan Hill

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Last summer, the Minnesota Timberwolves took a $4 million flier on veteran big man Jordan Hill, hoping he could give them some backup minutes behind Karl-Anthony Towns. Didn’t work out that way, he appeared in just 47 minutes across seven games. Cole Aldrich was better (though not great), and so in the draft the Timberwolves took Justin Patton hoping he can give them some minutes next season.

Which means Hill’s time in Minnesota has come to an end.

Hill will be 30 years old next season, but I’m not sure that there’s another NBA contract in his future. If so he may have to earn it through a training camp invite.

Report: Nets, Sixers to try and land J.J. Redick as free agent

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Chris Paul and Blake Griffin get all the headlines as the big Clippers’ big free agents, but there is another Clipper going to get paid this summer:

J.J. Redick.

One of the best snipers in the NBA, he shot 42.9 percent from three last year. However, he’s become much more than just a shooter. No player works harder off the ball to get open than Redick, he’s got enough game to put the ball on the floor and create if he gets closed out on, and he’s a solid team defender. He has remade his body and his game since his days at Duke, and now he’s going to get paid.

Maybe by Brooklyn or Philadephia, reports Kevin O’Conner at The Ringer.

Multiple league sources I’ve spoken to expect the Sixers and Nets to make a hard push at Redick. Were he to go to either of those teams, Redick could receive an opportunity unlike anything he’s had before. He is one of the greatest 3-point shooters in league history, and is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high six 3-point attempts per game. That’s a lot of triples, but it’s not enough. Even Sixers swingman Robert Covington averaged more last season, at 6.1 per game, and he shot only 33.3 percent. A gunslinger of Redick’s caliber should be averaging about 8.5 treys, in the same range as Klay Thompson or Eric Gordon. Had Redick taken 8.5 3s last season and posted the same 42.9 percent clip, he would’ve averaged 18.2 points per game. Redick could receive those chances with the Sixers or Nets, all while living within close proximity to his home in Brooklyn.

Redick will have options, the question is what does he want? Does he want to be close to home in Brooklyn? Does he want to both help on the court and mentor off it the up-and-coming Sixers? Would he take a little less money, and a couple fewer shots, to chase a ring? Does he want to stay a Clipper?

Redick has earned the right to have options, his skill set could help any team. He may be flying under fans’ radar, but not front office executives. They see Redick’s value. Which is why he will have options come July 1.

Report: Nuggets plan to make free agent run at Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap

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Denver likes its young core. As it should. Nikola Jokic looks like a franchise cornerstone piece at center. Young guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are clearly part of the future. Emmanuel Mudiay and Juan Hernangomez may be as well.

What Denver needs most is an upgrade at the four — someone who can defend, rebound, and space the floor. It’s a top off-season priority (and why they came up as a third team in the Kevin Love/Paul George trade talks, but that appears dead now).

Instead, expect the Nuggets to be aggressive on the free agent market. Via Marc Stein and Chris Haynes at ESPN.

Denver, according to sources, hopes to crash the list of suitors for Los Angeles Clippers unrestricted free agent Blake Griffin and Atlanta Hawks unrestricted free agent Paul Millsap.‎

Denver’s interest in Millsap is no secret and they will likely come in with a big offer, and it’s known he’s likely to leave Atlanta this summer. He’d be the perfect fit with his ability to defend other fours (he almost made the NBA All-Defensive Team), he is strong on the glass, and he shot 31.3 percent from three last season (you have to respect him out there). Griffin is more athletic and a better passer than Millsap, but he’s not the same level of defender, and he comes with more injury concerns. He also could stay with the Clippers.

Denver has positioned itself to be a player, a team going after one more big star to position itself not just in the playoffs in the West but as a team fast on the rise. Whether the Nuggets can out-recruit teams for elite players, remains to be seen. Millsap, Griffin and players of that level have options and a lot of teams chasing them.

However, Denver is one confident organization right now.