Los Angeles Lakers v Dallas Mavericks

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.

Wall has to work for recognition among top NBA point guards

Washington Wizards guard John Wall dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Fresh off scoring 51 points against the Washington Wizards, reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry praised John Wall, who dropped a quiet 41 against the Warriors.

“He’s a top-tier point guard,” Curry said, “and it’s like that – not his caliber every night – but obviously at the point guard position you’re going to have some talent on the other side of the ball most nights.”

Wall has never played better in what is now a point-guard league.

It doesn’t stop with Curry. The talent pool includes Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, Portland’s Damian Lillard, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul, to name a few.

“I think I’m having a career year,” Wall said. “I can say I’m playing my best basketball, but not the way I want to play because it’s not equaling up to wins.”

Wall is an All-Star for the third time but gets lost in the packed field of “top-tier” point guards. His 20.1 points a game are sixth at the position, while his 9.9 assists are third behind only Sacramento’s Rajon Rondo and Westbrook.

But some nights there is just no denying his talents.

Like Tuesday at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Wall had 28 points and 17 assists to lead Washington past the Knicks. It was another showcase performance during a season that hasn’t gone the way he or the Wizards have wanted.

The Wizards will be a sub-.500 team and outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture at the All-Star break. Injuries to sidekick Bradley Beal and many others have hampered Washington this season.

But Wall is holding up his end and is playing like a top-five point guard.

He has an all-around game – the ability to beat defenders off the dribble, to spot up, pass, use his court vision and rebound. As Celtics coach Brad Stevens said recently, “you have to pick your poison” when defending Wall.

“Being able to shoot the ball off the pick and roll with great consistency – that’s what makes defenses choose what to do next,” Stevens said. “He’s been a great passer off the pick and roll.”

There’s no shortage of admiration around the league for Wall, who Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown deemed “the fastest guard in the NBA.” Brown compared Wall to a Maserati sports car and said the 25-year-old has improved because “you learn how to drive your Maserati better.”

Much of Wall’s game has improved in his six pro seasons since he was the first overall pick out of Kentucky in 2010.

“His speed is probably second to none in the NBA. … He’s a one-man fast break and it’s crazy because he logs so many minutes,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “His midrange jumper is also so much improved. You can tell he’s been working on his game a lot, and you like to see that from guys.”

Wall doesn’t get the headlines like Curry, Irving or even Thomas, of late. He has only scored the most points in a game he’s played in eight times this season, but Wall is the kind of player that teams have to game-plan against.

“You’ve got to build a wall against Wall,” Cavaliers star LeBron James said. “You let him play in open court one-on-one, he’s too fast, he’s too strong. He’s going to put your defense at bay.”

Opponents have tried to close off Wall’s drives to the basket and force him to take jump shots. At times, it has worked, like when the Trail Blazers limited him to 4 of 17 shooting in a victory last month.

“When you’re playing against an All-Star-caliber player like him, you work as hard as you can, you try and contain his penetration and hope he misses some jumpers,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.

More often than not, Wall makes the most of his time and space. Even so, Washington coach Randy Wittman believes Curry should get more recognition than Wall because of team results.

“John’s body of work has been pretty good; he’s been recognized with that,” Wittman said. “You’ve got to go out and play, you’ve got to go out and win. Those are the two things in our league. You want recognition? Be a winner and play your butt off. That’s how you get recognition, and John’s gotten it.”

NBA writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.

Report: “Al Horford is a legitimate possibility for the Celtics”

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The Boston Celtics have assets, a collection of good role players but lacking the true stars, the alpha, the No. 1 option that any team needs to really win in the NBA.

How about Al Horford?

The Hawks are testing the waters for Horford, and as you can see in the video above, Chirs Mannix of Comcast Sportsnet New England (as well as The Vertical at Yahoo Sports) sees a fit.

“I think Boston, Al Horford is a legitimate possibility for the Celtics. I think that is one of the guys across the league that Danny Ainge is the most excited about. He is a four man that would fit right into what Boston is trying to do. It would cost a lot of money to re-sign him in the offseason, but I think Boston is willing to play it, because they haven’t paid a lot of money for players in recent years.”

The question here, of course, is the cost going back. All sources around the league right now say the Hawks are asking for the moon (as Mannix mentions). The givens in this kind of deal would be David Lee‘s expiring contract (for salary reasons), and the Nets unprotected pick. But it’s going to take more. Jae Crowder? Marcus Smart? Avery Bradley? Kelly Olynyk? Isaiah Thomas? It’s going to take a couple of those guys on top of Lee and the pick.

But if you’re the Celtics, that’s the move — you have put together all these assets, now you need to consolidate them into a couple of stars. Horford’s good-at-everything will fit beautifully in Brad Stevens’s system.

Just something to keep your eyes on. Unless the Hawks decide not to move Horford at all. Which is still a possibility, they may not break this thing up.

Damian Lillard added to Team USA Olympic roster pool

Damian Lillard
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If you’re looking for a point guard who can flat-out score the rock, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many better than Damian Lillard. The Trail Blazers’ guard is averaging 24.2 points and 7.3 assists per game, with an above-average true shooting percentage of 54.6 percent, and a very high usage rate of 30.9.

He’s the kind of guy who might have a place on the Team USA Roster.

Which is why USA Basketball has added him to the pool to be considered for the Rio Olympics summer. The reason for the change is both Lillard’s level of play this season, and the fact he called USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo to ask for a spot, as reported by Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports.

Lillard deserves consideration, but there are two key reasons he likely doesn’t make the team:

1) He is still a terrible defender.

2) The list of guards for the USA Roster is ridiculous: Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Klay Thompson, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook. And now Lillard. That’s 10 guys for likely five spots. It’s hard to see Lillard making that cut.

But he deserves consideration.

Kings co-owner Shaq: Vivek Ranadivé told me George Karl would coach rest of season

Shaquille O'Neal
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
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Kings general manager Vlade Divac said keeping George Karl as coach was right move “for now.”

How long is “for now”?

Shaquille O’Neal, a Kings minority owner, shares insight.

Sam Amick of USA Today:

This would mean a little more if Vivek Ranadivé weren’t prone to wild swings. Remember, the Kings said Tyrone Corbin would finish last season as coach before firing him for Karl.

Divac also said in November that Karl would coach the rest of the season, and that came up for debate fewer than three months later.

Shaq’s revelation is as likely to embarrass the Kings in a few weeks as it is to signal Karl’s job security.