With Kobe’s return on horizon, so is shift in Lakers’ identity

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LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant is back practicing with the Lakers (as of this past weekend), creating a lot of buzz around the team. However that doesn’t mean his return to the court is imminent. Kobe said previously it likely would be two to three weeks after he returned to practice that he could play again, but around the Lakers caution and vague timetables remain the order of the day.

“He’s a presence, no doubt, and we need that presence, especially at the end of games,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said Sunday. “But we’ve got games to win and there’s going to be a bunch of them before he comes back. “

Still, his return begs another question:

What will be the Lakers’ identity when he returns?

They are just starting to find something resembling an identity now. They are up-tempo (fourth fastest in NBA) with solid shooters running to the arc. They move the ball well and defend better than people think (17th in the NBA). They are playing a D’Antoni style.

But D’Antoni understands that changes when Kobe gets back on the court

“The identity (now) is going to be we have to play full out for 48, and then Kobe comes back and the identity changes, so we’re OK,” D’Antoni said. “We just need to win as many as we can, get as good as we can, and then try to get some guys back that causes the identity changes a little bit….

“I just hope our identity will be a good team.”

To quote Andy Dufresne: “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” Thing is, Dufresne also had a plan of action to make the hope a reality. We’ll see if D’Antoni and the Lakers have that kind of plan.

Kobe — even a 35-year-old Kobe coming off an Achilles tendon surgery — should help a mediocre offense (25th in the NBA), in part because they don’t get to the free-throw line as much. The Lakers offense doesn’t have a focal point, something that hurts them in tight contests. Kobe brings that.

But right now the ball moves. You could see against the sad Pistons’ defense Sunday — there is something forming there. The question is: Can that seed take root when the force of nature that is Kobe Bryant returns? Or will it get blown away?

Put another way, will the Lakers have to adjust their identity upon his return?

“We don’t have to,” said Wesley Johnson. “I think he’s a very intelligent player and he’ll already know how to fit in, and then with him, he’s just going to play right with us. It’s going to be good, this whole week of practice we’ll see what’s going to happen, but we’re improving and ready to welcome him back with open arms.”

There’s a sense around the Lakers that if they can stay around .500 (they are 5-7 right now) until they get Kobe back (and hopefully Steve Nash) then everything will work itself out.

I’m skeptical it’s that simple. You are introducing a new dynamic to the team and one that doesn’t necessarily fit with the running style seen so far. We have seen the scenario of a ball-dominating player returning from injury to a D’Antoni team before. Remember Carmelo Anthony returning to the “Linsanity” Knicks? This is a different situation — these Lakers aren’t playing as well as those Knicks and Kobe is a more versatile player than ‘Melo — but you wonder if the same kind of difficult adjustment period is ahead of the Lakers.

That’s not how the Lakers see it at all. They just want Kobe back, the sooner the better.

“All I did was watch him growing up,” Nick Young said. “Now I’m going to try to play my role as best I can, I know he’s going to need me….

“We just deal with (the changes) when it happens. I don’t know, I haven’t played with him, but I know it’s going to be fun to see.”

That it is. That it is.

Bill Russell takes a knee while wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom

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When we talk of Bill Russell, it’s often the on-the-court accomplishments — an 11-time NBA champion and five-time MVP who anchored the Boston Celtics through the greatest dynasty in NBA history, one of the best defensive players ever to set foot on the court. He’s more than simply a Hall of Famer, he is one of the game’s all-time greatest players.

With that, we often overlook Russell the activist, who took part in the Civil Rights movement. A man who faced plenty of racism as a player — being jeered by white students in college while he played, not being allowed to stay in the same hotel as white players in North Carolina during an All-Star tour in 1958, and much more — he was public in his refusal to tolerate any of it. It was his efforts on that front as much as basketball that led then President Barack Obama to award Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Russell tweeted out this photo of himself wearing that medal and supporting the NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem.

Russell is not going to be silenced. Not now, not ever. He remains a strong voice that the NBA should heed.

Following in the footsteps of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against violence and social injustice last season by taking a knee during the national anthem, more players were doing so this season. When President Donald Trump called on NFL owners to “fire” the players taking a knee during the anthem, it led to a backlash among players and a much more widespread adopting of players taking a knee this past weekend. Even backers of the president — Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, both of whom donated to Trump last election — called Trump out for his comments.

It will be interesting to see how NBA teams handle anthem protests this season. Last season teams linked arms in a show of solidarity (the NBA has a rule that players must stand during the anthem) but you can be sure the league and players union are already discussing this. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was among the multitude of voices calling out Trump for what he said, let along high-ranking union members such as Chris Paul and LeBron Jamesthe latter of whom called the president a “bum.” Those slams of the president continued on media day Monday.

Report: T.J. Warren agrees to $50 million extension to stay in Phoenix

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T.J. Warren has potential — he’s an athletic wing who averaged 14.4 points per game last season, who loves to play in transition and can finish when he gets to the rim, plus he can defend multiple positions. Part of the motivation for the Suns in trading P.J. Tucker was to open up more time for Warren. However, injuries have held that potential back, he played in just 66 games last season and that is the most in his young career (he suffered a broken foot that required surgery the season before and it delayed his entry into last season).

The Suns bet on that potential Monday, agreeing to a four-year, $50 million rookie contract extension, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Phoenix Suns forward TJ Warren has agreed to a four-year, $50 million contract extension, league sources told ESPN…

Warren has shown tremendous potential as a versatile wing with significant scoring potential. He had his best — and healthiest — pro season in 2016-17, averaging 14.4 points and 5.1 rebounds while starting 59 of his 66 games played.

That $12.5 million average salary — basically fourth/fifth starter money — is higher than the market for Warren likely would have been, to put it kindly. That the Suns were willing to pay it speaks to how high they see his potential. If he can develop a more dangerous jumper he becomes is worth that money, but he has yet to show real shooting range. A lot of people saw the drafting of Josh Jackson last summer by Phoenix as a sign they were not sold on Warren, but GM Ryan McDonough clearly isn’t one of those people

The Suns have an athletic young core on the wings that they like with Warren, Jackson, and second-year players Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. This is a team with a couple of veterans such as Jared Dudley and Eric Bledsoe (the latter of whom is available via trade) to help guide that young core. The Suns were less sure about how big man Alex Len fits into that mix, and he just signed a $4.2 million qualifying offer and will be a free agent next season.

The Suns were less sure about how big man Alex Len fits into that mix, and he just signed a $4.2 million qualifying offer and will be a free agent next season.

Lakers are happy with the hype surrounding rookie Lonzo Ball

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) He has a Facebook reality show and a family shoe brand. His dad talks big on ESPN. He was the No. 2 overall draft pick and expects to transform one of the NBA’s glamor franchises.

Other than that, Lonzo Ball is an ordinary teenager.

The 19-year-old guard comes with otherworldly expectations, with the Los Angeles Lakers having fallen on hard times. They hope the local product can help them rejoin the NBA’s elite.

Ball’s journey officially begins Tuesday when the Lakers open training camp, but he appears to have already won over his new teammates during summer workouts.

“When you play with a pure point guard like that, it just makes it easier for everyone,” center Brook Lopez said. “He elevates players to a whole other level.

“I know it’s going to be great for me, just being on the receiving end of his passes. He’s going to gift-wrap baskets for me. He’s so good at turning other players into impact, amazing players. He’s going to be a transcendent talent.”

That has been the plan all along, particularly from his outspoken father LaVar Ball, who almost seemed to will his son’s journey from Chino Hills High School to UCLA to the Lakers.

If Lonzo Ball seems to arrive with the trappings of circus, he appears the calm in the center of the storm.

“Honestly, Zo is relaxed,” forward Julius Randle said. “Zo is chill. He’s one of the guys. For as much as he has going around him, you would never know.”

Ball doesn’t say a lot himself, and what he does say comes out in rapid-fire fashion. Reporters circled around some eight deep Monday at the team’s media day, but Ball appeared to take it in stride.

“I’ve been kinda like this my whole life, so I really don’t feel anything to be honest,” he said. “It’s just playing a game, the game I love.”

That approach has hardly gone unnoticed by legendary point guard Magic Johnson, now the Lakers’ president of basketball operations.

“I told him, he’s just like me,” Johnson said. “When I came here there were a lot of expectations put on my shoulders and the Lakers as an organization. Now I’m his boss, but I’m also his big brother.”

When those comments were relayed to Ball, the rookie responded: “More like an uncle. He looks older than my brother.”

It was a rare glimpse of the sense of humor that teammates say is not uncommon when the cameras are off.

As for those lofty expectations? Like most everything else, Ball just shrugs and flashes a hint of his confidence.

“I think I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ve been playing basketball my whole life and I’m pretty good at it.”

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Jaylen Brown wants Celtics to protest Donald Trump as a team

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The Latest on Monday’s events from NBA media days (all times local):

1:40 p.m.

Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown says he has talked to the rest of the team about protesting President Trump’s comments about athletes.

Brown said Monday at that Celtics media day that he’s also spoken to Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and “he’s all for that.”

The president complained about football players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and said NFL owners should fire them. The league responded on Sunday with a much wider protest that included condemnations by owners and more than 200 players taking knees during the anthem. Other teams locked arms, sometimes with their owners and coaches.

Brown says he wants the Celtics to find a way to protest as a team because “our voices are stronger together.”

1:30 p.m.

LeBron James says he would love to have Dwyane Wade join the Cavaliers.

Wade has accepted a buyout from the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland could be a potential landing spot. James and Wade won two NBA titles together with the Miami Heat and are close friends.

James said Monday at the Cavaliers media that he has spoken to Wade, and plans to again.

12:25 p.m.

The Carmelo Anthony era in New York is officially over.

The Knicks completed their trade with Oklahoma City on Monday morning, sending the All-Star forward to the Thunder for center Enes Kanter, forward Doug McDermott and Chicago’s 2018 second-round draft pick.

Knicks President Steve Mills thanked Anthony for his play with the Knicks but also for what he “accomplished off the court for the City of New York by using his platform to address social issues.”

Mills announced that the Knicks were donating $100,000 to Anthony’s relief efforts to aid Puerto Rico in its recovery from the recent hurricanes.

Anthony also thanked the Knicks and New York in an online essay .

12:10 p.m.

Cavaliers point guard Isaiah Thomas has made progress with his hip injury, and officials said Monday the organization expects him to play by January.

Thomas has begun running and doing on-court activities as he rehabilitates the injury, which prematurely ended his 2017 postseason with the Boston Celtics. The Cavs acquired Thomas this summer from Boston in a blockbuster trade for All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving.

Thomas doesn’t need surgery and the Cavs are confident he will be back on the floor in games by the end of the calendar year. While the Eastern Conference champions have been encouraged by Thomas’ recovery, they will not rush him back.

Thomas averaged 28.9 points last season for the Celtics, who sent him along with forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and a 2018 first-round draft to Cleveland for Irving.

Cleveland was concerned with Thomas’ injury and the Celtics added a second-round pick to complete the deal.

11:05 a.m.

The Miami Heat aren’t sure if they are going to Mexico City for a game this season.

The Heat are scheduled to play the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 9 in Mexico City, a city where at least 186 people died in a massive earthquake last week. Rescuers were still digging in dangerous piles of rubble Monday, desperately seeking any more survivors.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says the team sent personnel to Mexico City to see the arena before the quake, and will send people back to Mexico City in the coming weeks.

“Our hearts go out to the folks in Mexico City,” Spoelstra said. “It’s horrific to see that.”

Across Mexico, at least 324 people died in the quake. The NBA has said that, for now at least, the game remains as scheduled.

10:30 a.m.

Politics is already the talk of NBA media day.

After a weekend where President Donald Trump rescinded the Golden State Warriors’ invitation to the White House and Cleveland star LeBron James responded by calling the president a “bum,” it was clear that Monday’s season-opening media sessions for 28 teams were quite possibly going to be as much about politics as basketball.

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores released a statement early Monday that did not specifically mention Trump, but says “America’s most treasured values include equality and diversity, and the right to effect change through peaceful expression and thoughtful debate.” Gores also says he will support the Pistons players and their right to thoughtfully raise awareness to various causes.

On Sunday night, Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said Trump’s “recent comments are deeply disappointing, because our focus should be on fostering a culture of sensitivity and inclusion.”

7 a.m.

The most retweeted post ever sent by LeBron James before this weekend was one in 2013 in response to the incessant who’s-better debate about him and Michael Jordan.

“I’m not MJ, I’m LJ,” he wrote. It was retweeted nearly 112,000 times.

And then LJ took on POTUS, calling President Donald Trump a “bum.” James’ Twitter account exploded from there, the 640,000 and counting retweets making it one of the top 15 shared posts ever.

If James’ tweet is any indicator, politics will be center stage across the NBA on Monday when 28 teams gather for their media days – the annual precursor to the start of training camps. Carmelo Anthony will formally become part of the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, Kyrie Irving’s first season in Boston will truly begin and Dwyane Wade is about to become a free agent after reaching a buyout with Chicago.

But those story lines, and probably all others, will almost certainly take a back seat to athletes reacting to politics.

More AP basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball