With Kobe staying as highest-paid player in NBA, the Lakers can rebuild but it’s not easy

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Kobe Bryant has signed a contract extension and is staying on with the Lakers for two more seasons. That news made Lakers nation happy — go to a Lakers game and you see the flood of 24 jerseys in the crowd — you quickly realize why the Lakers could not let him go at any cost. He fills the luxury boxes, he draws the sponsors, he is worth a lot to them financially. More than they can pay him.

But they are still paying him a lot.

ESPN reports the deal is for two years at $48.5 million — Kobe Bryant will remain the highest paid player in the NBA.

For a team that has sold its fan base on making moves with a lot of cap space this summer to again contend, this throws a little kink in the plan. A big kink. Maybe a crippling kink.

The Lakers will still have money to go after a max free agent (if they can recruit one, that’s another issue) but after that they wouldn’t have a lot left. Especially since they do not want to go over the luxury tax line next year, they want to get away from the repeater tax.

That is not going to make the Lakers a contender. The contract holds them back (remember Tim Duncan scaled back to $11 million, Kevin Garnett about the same).

The Lakers still should have about $22 million in cap space next summer, reports Larry Coon at his NBA CBAFAQ. (Ed. note: These numbers are updated from the original version of this post.) In case you’re curious, is more than LeBron James will get but less than Carmelo Anthony’s max ($23 million). Not that either of them are likely to leave their current settings ( you never know, but don’t bet on it). The Lakers will be in the market for second tier guys — Luol Deng, Zach Randolph, Danny Granger and others.

The salary cap next summer is projected to be $62.9 million. The Lakers will also have their own first round draft pick. Based on their current record, this pick would fall around #15, and would therefore count around $1.5 million against their cap.This would give them a total of about $37.66 million for six players. We need to add another six cap holds totaling $3,04 million, which brings the total to about $40,70 million.

With this team salary, the Lakers would have about $22.2 million in cap room next summer.

However, the situation gets even more complex for the Lakers.

The Lakers process has to start with a clear plan for  what kind of team they are building — if they are keeping Mike D’Antoni around as coach they can’t just go get anyone (particularly Carmelo Anthony), they need to get specific players that fit his system and what he wants to do.

The Lakers go into next season with three contracts on the books — Kobe at $23.5 million, Steve Nash with $9.7 million (with what he is saying I don’t expect he will retire), Robert Sacre at $915,243 (Elias Harris has a non-guaranteed deal, we will assume he is gone). They will have a roughly $1.5 million slot for their first-round draft pick this year. In theory Nick Young could stick around as he has a $1.2 million option, but it is more likely he opts out to try and find a longer deal. The Lakers have a player option on Ryan Kelly at $1 million they may pick up. The Lakers also likely would want to keep Jordan Hill around, but he is an unrestricted free agent playing his way into a bigger payday than the $3.5 million he made this year.

Then there are the cap holds — placeholders against what the Lakers can spend based on them keeping their own free agents. Pau Gasol is at $20 million, Steve Blake at $7.6 million and it goes on down the list through Chris Kaman, Jodie Meeks and others.

To have their max money to go after free agents the Lakers have to renounce their rights to all of those guys – plus Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and others playing well in their roles — and let them be free agents. Only then do they have the empty roster and cap space. Or they could re-sign those guys and cut into the $20 million.

Which is to say, the Lakers can’t just test the market and expect Gasol to be there as a fallback in case their dalliance with others doesn’t work out.

Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has said before rebuilding is a multi-year process for the Lakers — they are not going to check everything off the box this summer.

But if they are going to get Kobe Bryant the ring No. 6 he so desperately wants they only have a couple of years now as a window. And it’s not going to be easy to get those guys. Not with Kobe’s salary on the books.

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.