Lower expectations next season should give Mike D’Antoni a real chance with the Lakers

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Mike D’Antoni was placed into a situation as head coach of the Lakers last season where he never really had a fair chance to succeed.

The hope in Los Angeles this year is that due to expectations being lowered significantly from the championship-or-bust mentality that (rightfully) surrounded the team a season ago, D’Antoni won’t be under as much pressure, and therefore, may be able to work some level of magic with the players he’ll have on the roster.

In other words, he might actually have a shot.

From Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles:

Several times last season, D’Antoni paraphrased Winston Churchill in describing his approach to the Lakers’ ups and downs, “When you’re going through hell, you put your head down and keep going, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The pressure of a $100 million payroll that was built to be a contender and was struggling just to play .500 ball was persistent and intense. The Lakers are hoping that [Dwight Howard]’s departure will perhaps act as a sort of pressure release valve heading into the upcoming season.

“Expectations should be lower and I think that will ease the pressure on him,” said a source familiar with the Lakers front office’s thinking.

Never mind the fact that D’Antoni took over the team five games into the season after the unexpected yet deserved firing of Mike Brown, who had spent all of training camp trying to install a complicated offensive system that the players seemed to resist.

In addition to trying to right the ship once the season had already started, the injuries suffered by the Lakers reached comical levels before things were through, and the constant lineup shuffling made it impossible to see what D’Antoni might’ve been capable of without his best players available to play together for anything more than very small stretches.

None of that stopped the constant and scathing over-analysis, however, and as Howard will be the first to tell you, it was anything but fun to be in that situation.

It will be interesting to see what D’Antoni can do given a full training camp, and given the fair amount of talent added to the roster in the form of Chris Kaman, Nick Young, and Jordan Farmar.

There will be no intense pressure to win night in and night out, and the scrutinization of the team’s shortcomings by the media will be minimal, at best. If next season does indeed turn out to be a disaster, the blame will firmly be placed on D’Antoni’s shoulders. But no matter how it all plays out, he’ll be able to say that at least this time, he was given a fighting chance.

Three Things We Learned Wednesday: LeBron says Cavs lack toughness, or are they bored?

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The NCAA Tournament gets back underway Thursday, but the NBA ball just keeps rolling along. Here are the big takeaways from Wednesday.

1) LeBron James says Cavaliers lack toughness. Is there trouble or are they just bored with the regular season?
Here is the unquestioned fact: The Denver Nuggets trounced the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night, 126-113. There are a number of factors in this, starting with Denver is playing better than people think — the Nuggets are the fifth best team in the NBA since the All-Star break, outscoring teams by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. Jamal Murray is emerging as the ball handling guard of the future for this team, Gary Harris is a sniper, and they have solid veterans such as Jameer Nelson and Wilson Chandler. But at the heart of it all is Nikola Jokic, who is for real. Watch what he does to LeBron James here.

Yes, Cleveland had to go play at altitude in the middle of a long road trip. Still…

What is going on with the Cavaliers?

Opponents have outscored them by 0.9 points per 100 since the All-Star break, and the Cavs are playing terrible defense (second worst in the NBA since the break). Asked in Denver after the loss what is wrong with the Cavs, LeBron said the team lacked toughness, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It ain’t about a group. It’s about individuals,” James said… “We’ve got to be more, just do more. It ain’t about no group. You can’t preach toughness. You’ve got to have it.”

“Personally? I had opportunities where I could have been better,” James said before firing back with a rebuttal. “Um, one thing about it: I always bring toughness to the game. I know that. That’s for sure.”

LeBron is clearly challenging his team to get serious on both ends and to start getting in playoff mode.

To me, the Cavaliers look bored. As in the real season starts in a couple of weeks with the playoffs, and they feel they can flip the switch then, but right now the regular season feels like a tedious slog. That’s what it looked like in Denver. Before that, I watched the Cavaliers in person against the Lakers Sunday, and LeBron James played well enough all game, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were getting theirs, but the team lacked any urgency, and it showed on defense. The tanking Lakers hung around. Then, LeBron seemed to say “screw this” and for a five-minute span took charge of the game, looking every bit the best player on the planet, the rest of the Cavaliers quickly fell in line, Cleveland took control of the game, and they coasted from there to the win.

That was against the Lakers, the worst team in the NBA since the All-Star break and a team playing youth everywhere. Denver is legit right now, they are playing well, and the Cavs couldn’t just flip the switch on Wednesday. Jokic and Mason Plumlee led the way as the Nuggets scored 70 points in the paint.

It’s still hard to picture any team in the East beating Cleveland. However, they have not spent the regular season building good habits to fall back on when the eventual challenge comes in the playoffs. There’s been a lot of comparisons to the 2000-01 Lakers, a defending championship team that battled injuries and didn’t impress in the regular season, looked bored on defense, then flipped the switch in the playoffs and went 16-1 on the way to the title. Maybe. But teams that flip the switch are the exception, not the rule.

The bored Cavaliers are playing a dangerous game, but will it haunt them before June? Can any team in the East make them pay?

2) The Knicks have no answer for Rudy Gobert, Jazz thump Knicks. Rudy Gobert is a defensive powerhouse of a big man, the best rim protector in the game and a man on his way to winning Defensive Player of the Year. That was a problem for the Knicks on Wednesday night. A bigger problem — they couldn’t stop him on offense around the rim. Gobert at 35 points on 13-of-14 shooting, with 11 offensive rebounds. The Knicks went small for stretches (with Kristaps Porzingis, but he isn’t strong enough to handle Gobert), other times Willy Hernangomez tried but could not slow Gobert, and the French big man feasted. Check out Gobert’s shot chart.

Or, just watch what he did to the Knicks.

The Knicks started hot in this game behind vintage Derrick Rose for a quarter, but they can’t sustain that kind of play against a quality team. Utah is a quality team (I think they can beat the Clippers in the first round), and the foundation of that is in the middle.

3) Russell Westbrook notches 35th triple-double with perfect shooting, Thunder attack the rim and get the win. Let us formally acknowledge that Russell Westbrook is very, very good at basketball. He had 18 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds, and was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field. That would be the first perfect shooting triple-double in NBA history. How’s that for adding to the MVP resume.

As for the game, the Thunder attacked the paint and the Sixers had no answers. OKC won 122–97, scoring 76 points while knocking down just four 3-pointers.

Report: Hawks’ Paul Millsap to opt out, explore free agency

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Before the season, Paul Millsap said he was undecided on opting out.

We’re one step closer to completely dismissing that shaky pretense.

Adam Schefter of ESPN:

There’s no question Millsap can earn more than his $21,472,407 option-year salary. He might even earn the max, which projects to be north of $36 million. The 32-year-old will also have a chance to lock into a long-term contract.

Opting out is an easy call.

The only question is whether anyone will offer a max starting salary and max years.

That’s a risky proposition for a player his age, but for a team ready to win now, the short-term gains might outweigh the long-term risk. (And it’s not really a “risk.” Millsap is extremely likely to be overpaid by the end of a full max deal.) Millsap is an elite defender with an efficient offensive game.

How much would the Hawks pay? They called re-signing Millsap their priority, but they’ve also sent mixed messages about their desire to win now (signing Dwight Howard, keeping Millsap past the trade deadline) vs. rebuilding (trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver).

And it’s not unilaterally up to Atlanta. Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent, and if he plans to explore the market, you never know what he’ll find.

Russell Westbrook posts 35th triple-double; Thunder roll past 76ers

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Add another first for Russell Westbrook – a triple-double without missing a shot.

Westbrook recorded his 35th triple-double of the season with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder cruised to a 122-97 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.

He did so while making all six of his field-goal attempts and all six of his free throws. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no NBA player previously has had a triple-double without missing a shot attempt or free throw.

“It’s amazing, especially for a point guard, because he’s shooting threes, twos, inside, outside,” said Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter of his teammate’s perfect shooting. “For a point guard, he’s doing an unbelievable job, playing his game, having fun.”

Westbrook’s perfect shooting night could partially be attributed to a conscious decision to not shoot a 3-pointer in a game for the first time since March 14, 2016. He said he wasn’t aware during the game that he hadn’t missed a shot.

“I was just trying to play, trying to take my time,” Westbrook said. “I’ve been watching some film, trying to pick my spots better. I found ways to continue to get my teammates involved throughout the game and it just happened that way.

The Thunder have won 16 straight games against Philadelphia, a run that stretches to the 2008-09 season, the franchise’s first in Oklahoma City. That dominance was perhaps most evident in the final rebounding numbers on Wednesday: Oklahoma City 54, Philadelphia 25.

“It’s a fantastic example for our young guys on the physicality of playoff-type teams,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “That side of it to me stood out more than it has in a long time. … You look at the discrepancy on the boards, the rebounding differential, and it felt that.

“It’s a reminder. If you want to play late in April, if you want to play in May, maybe June one day, that’s the physicality that the playoffs bring.”

Nik Stauskas led the 76ers with 20 points, reaching the 20-point mark in consecutive games for the first time in his career.

After 11 lead changes in the opening minutes, the Thunder seized control with a 14-3 run near the end of the first quarter that put them ahead 29-22. Oklahoma City pushed its lead to 14 at one point before settling for a 63-50 halftime lead.

Philadelphia scored to start the third quarter, then the Thunder scored the next 15 points to build a 26-point lead and the triple-double watch intensified. Westbrook’s 10th assist came when Taj Gibson rattled in a 15-foot jumper at the 9:10 mark and the 10th rebound came with 7:08 left in the quarter.

It was the 13th time this season, and the 27th time in his career, Westbrook clinched a triple-double in the third quarter. He left the game with 2:39 left in the quarter and didn’t return.

Westbrook has recorded five triple-doubles against Philadelphia, his highest total against any NBA team. He needs six triple-doubles in Oklahoma City’s final 11 games to tie Oscar Robertson’s single-season record, set during the 1961-62 season.

Kanter posted his 17th double-double of the season for the Thunder with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Victor Oladipo (18 points) and Doug McDermott (13 points) also reached double figures for the Thunder.

TIP-INS:

76ers: Jahlil Okafor, who missed Monday’s game at Orlando with right knee soreness, started against the Thunder and played 17 minutes, scoring six points. … Dario Saric scored 12 points, extending his double-figure scoring streak to 21 games, the longest by a rookie this season. … Stauskas matched his season high with five 3-pointers, going 5-of-5 from behind the arc in the first half.

Thunder: With its 41st win of the season, Oklahoma City is assured of a .500 or better record for the eighth straight season. Only two other teams, the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, have as long a streak. … Westbrook has 72 triple-doubles and needs six more to tie Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the NBA all-time list.

SURGERY FOR EMBIID

The 76ers said before the game that rookie center Joel Embiid will undergo surgery on a torn meniscus in his left knee. Team spokesman Mike Preston said the 7-footer, who has been plagued with injuries during his professional career, will have the surgery “in the coming days.”

Brown said “there has been tremendous due diligence … and research” about the decision concerning surgery and that Embiid “took an active role” in making the decision. Brown wouldn’t say if he thought Embiid would return by the start of next season: “That’s stuff we will talk more about and learn more about.”

Embiid missed his first two NBA seasons with a foot injury. He played in 31 games this season, averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game but hasn’t played since Jan. 27, when he scored 32 points in a loss to the Houston Rockets.

QUOTABLE:

Philadelphia guard T.J. McConnell on guarding Westbrook: “It’s not a one-person job. It’s an entire team.”

 

Wilson Chandler leads Nuggets past Cavaliers, 126-113

Associated Press
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DENVER (AP) — Wilson Chandler scored 18 points in his return from a four-game absence with a pulled groin and provided stellar defense on LeBron James in the Denver Nuggets’ 126-113 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night.

The Nuggets bounced back from consecutive heartbreaking last-second losses to Houston with a signature win that increased their lead to 1 1/2 games over idle Portland in the race for the final playoff spot in the West.

Will Barton scored 20 points, Kenneth Faried added 17 and Jamal Murray had 15 off the bench for Denver, which also got 21 points from Gary Harris and 16 from Nikola Jokic.

Kyrie Irving led the Cavs with 33 points but James had just 18 and the two stars sat out much of the fourth quarter with Cleveland trailing by double digits.

The Nuggets took a 101-90 lead into the fourth quarter after an entertaining third quarter that included a James-fueled 15-4 run by the Cavs and a 15-3 response by the Nuggets that included nine points from Faried.

But the arena-rocking basket in the Nuggets’ big run came not from Faried but from Jokic, who backed down James during a particularly physical possession. His basket gave Denver a 99-83 lead.

Denver grabbed momentum midway through the second quarter when Murray swished three 3-pointers that gave the Nuggets a 50-40 lead.

The Nuggets doubled that cushion thanks in part to Richard Jefferson‘s face slap of Juancho Hernangomez for a flagrant foul. Hernangomez sank both free throws and then Barton swished a 3-pointer on the inbounds, capping a 7-0 spurt that gave Denver a 61-47 lead. The Nuggets pushed their lead to 69-49.

Chandler showed fresh legs and little rust in his return to action.

“He hasn’t played in 10, 11 days,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said before tip-off. “At least going into the game I feel that we have a body that can match up with LeBron’s physicality. He’s just such a versatile defender for us, so that’s going to be great to have him back.”

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: The Cavs, who fell to 18-17 on the road, had limited the Nuggets to an average of 99 points in their last three trips to the Pepsi Center, all wins. … The teams combined to miss just one free throw in the first half – by James. … Irving, who had 19 points in the first half, topped 20 points for the 19th consecutive game, extending the longest current streak in the NBA.

Nuggets: Danilo Gallinari missed his fourth straight game with a bone bruise on his left knee. … Denver already had 120 points by the time Deron Williams’ three-point play put the Cavs in triple digits at the 3:54 mark of the fourth quarter.

 

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