Kobe is back but loss to Raptors shows Lakers still have a lot of work to do

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LOS ANGELES — Kobe passed the first challenge he has set before himself.

Eight months of never-ending therapy sessions and workouts to return to the court paid off — Kobe is back. He was introduced with Darth Vader’s theme music and Staples Center was buzzing like it was a playoff game. Kobe was on the court with the ball in his hands, particularly in the fourth quarter. It was what the Lakers nation had been waiting to see.

But what they saw wasn’t pretty.

“Right now my form is a horse s— form,” Bryant said bluntly after the game.

Fixing that and getting in sync with his teammates is the next challenge Kobe has to set his mind to.

Kobe said physically he felt right, but he looked understandably very rusty — like a guy who hadn’t played in an NBA game for eight months after Achilles surgery at age 35. Kobe was 2-of-9 shooting with eight turnovers. He led a group Lakers starters that shot 25 percent — not one of them scored in double digits.

Which is why the Lakers fell to the Raptors 106-94 to spoil Kobe’s much anticipated return.

This kind of rough start had to be expected (at least by anyone not seeing the world through purple and gold glasses). Not only was Kobe bound to be rusty but also the Lakers were going from a team where the ball was often in Steve Blake’s hands to one where Kobe controlled the flow of the offense.

“I felt good that I was able to get into the lane…” Kobe said after the loss. “I felt like I could penetrate and turn the corner, which was a big question mark for me. And then once I got in there I didn’t make the proper reads most of the time, but the fact of the matter I was able to get in there. The reads you can improve, the explosiveness you can’t.”

The other Lakers players (particularly the starters) were simply hesitant and guys were passive when Kobe was on the court. It wasn’t so much guys were just watching him (as has been an issue in the past) as much as just the movements in the offense were out of sync.

“We’re all trying to get used to playing with one another,” Lakers starting center Robert Sacre said. “It’s definitely been growing pains. I think we can handle it, nothing we haven’t seen before…

“I think it’s going to take a couple of games and unfortunately it’s not some easy games we’ve got coming down the pipe.”

The Lakers may not have a few games (they play the Suns Tuesday night followed by a four game road trip which includes Oklahoma City). In the deep Western Conference the 10-10 Lakers are the 10 seed and 1.5 games out of the playoffs. While it’s early and that’s not much, they can’t dig a much deeper hole if they plan to climb out of it and make the postseason because other teams are going to step over them. There is little forgiveness for slumps in the West.

Kobe showed some moments where he looked like his old self. For example his first bucket came with a pump fake lefty 10-foot bank with 5:07 left in second that was vintage. Late in the second quarter he used his jab step to create space for an 18-footer he nailed.

But mostly early we saw facilitator Kobe — and that is where the rust and lack of having played with guys through training camp and 19 games to start the season showed. Kobe was turning the ball over, clearly just not used yet to the speed of the NBA game and where the lanes to make passes would appear.

“He was as good as he can be, it’s going to take a while,” coach Mike D’Antoni said, repeating the mantra you heard from anyone in the Lakers locker room. “There’s no way he could do that, I know everybody thought he could but no way he could be out eight months, have no training camp, and come out and be in mid-season form.

“We knew that, which is why we needed the other guys needed to step up around him and we didn’t do that.”

What the Lakers did do was hide Kobe Bryant on defense — he guarded Landry Fields to start and later Steve Novak. He got switched onto DeMar DeRozan a few times and while he got an early steal that way generally that was a good matchup for the Raptors.

There were a lot of good matchups for the Raptors, particularly anyone in white trying to cover Amir Johnson who led Toronto with 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting. Toronto got 60 points in the paint with Johnson muscling his way in and DeRozan slashing his way (26 points). Without Rudy Gay (traded earlier in the day) Toronto moved the ball well and the Lakers had no good answers on that end.

Kobe knows the Lakers need to turn this around quickly. And planning to do his part of that in the most Kobe of ways.

“I couldn’t wait to start watching film and criticizing every little thing and I’ll go home tonight and watching over again, but that’s the exciting part,” Bryant said. “The exciting part is you got a challenge and you got some improvements to make and you sit and you watch them and you break it down and you get ready for the next game and carry it from there.”

It’s the next challenge and Kobe is ready for it. The fact that Kobe was back on the court just 240 days after having his Achilles torn is an accomplishment of a high magnitude. And some were able to really appreciate that.

“It’s my first time playing with Kobe, it’s something I can tell my son,” Shawne Williams said. “It was history to me.”

But Kobe is not one to dwell on history. He wants the next mountain to climb.

PBT Extra: Cavaliers’ new GM aces first big test with Kyrie Irving trade

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Everyone in the NBA — heck, nearly everyone living in the Western hemisphere — knew Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland. That should kill the Cavaliers’ leverage and make it hard to get enough quality back.

New GM Koby Altman — the guy thrust into the job when David Griffin was shown the door — pulled it off brilliantly.

That’s what I talk about in this new PBT Extra. With Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, the Cavaliers remain the team to beat in the East this season. The Brooklyn Nets pick gives them flexibility going forward, whatever LeBron James decides to do next season.

First time at the plate in the big leagues and Altman crushed it to straight away center field.

Cavaliers-Celtics deal first offseason trade involving players who just met in NBA Finals or conference finals

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The Cavaliers and Celtics played in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. The teams were widely expected to meet there again.

Yet, Cleveland and Boston just completed a blockbuster trade – Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick.

That seemed odd.

In fact, it’s unprecedented.

That is an incredible fact, one which speaks to LeBron Jamescachet. The Cavs are emphasizing this season, LeBron’s last before a player option, by loading up with veterans Thomas and Crowder. With LeBron still reigning in Cleveland, the Celtics are delaying their peak by acquiring the younger Irving.

Adding to the intrigue: the Cavs and Celtics are still favored to meet in this year’s conference finals. At minimum, they’ll face off in a(n even more) highly anticipated opening-night matchup.

PBT Extra: What does Kyrie Irving trade mean for LeBron James?

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In the end, the entire Kyrie Irving blockbuster trade was about LeBron James. It started because Kyrie Irving wanted out of LeBron’s enormous shadow. Cleveland went with this trade because Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder help them win now, and whatever LeBron decides to do next summer the Brooklyn pick (and maybe Ante Zizic) helps them build for the future.

But what does this trade mean to LeBron James?

Honestly, it doesn’t change much. That’s what I get into in this latest PBT Extra. LeBron is leaving his options open, but maybe this deal could help Cleveland keep him if it makes them more competitive with the Warriors.

Rumor: Young Bulls ‘can’t stand’ Dwyane Wade

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After a loss last January, Dwyane Wade (in conjunction with since-traded Jimmy Butler) lashed out at his Bulls teammates for not caring enough. Those younger players didn’t receive the message gratefully, questioning why Wade didn’t practice more.

The simple answer: Wade is 35, and he and his team are better served if he saves himself for games. But Wade also should have known his schedule left him ill-suited to criticize harder-working teammates.

The whole saga exposed the inherent tension that occurs when an accomplished veteran with declining skills is thrust into a leadership position on a mediocre team.

Consider that backdrop as Wade and Chicago dance around a buyout.

Nick Friedell on ESPN discussing Wade getting bought out:

This is inevitable. It’s coming. It’s a matter of when, not if.

But right now, guys, it’s just kind of a staring contest. Everybody’s looking at each other saying, “OK, how much money are you willing to give up?”

And Gar Forman, the Bulls’ GM, at summer league, said, “Oh, we’re not having conversations.” I don’t think that’s the case. I think Dwyane’s agents and the Bulls are wanting to get this thing done.

But I’d really be surprised if it happened before the season. I still think it’s more likely that it’ll happen probably somewhere in December or January.

But this is a divorce that’s going to happen. It’s just going to take some time.

The young players on the Bulls really can’t stand Dwyane, and it’s the little secret in Chicago. They have had enough.

Wade’s January criticism was reportedly particularly directed at Nikola Mirotic and Michael Carter-Williams, neither of whom are on the roster. (Mirotic, a restricted free agent, will likely return.) Even if Wade’s comments cast a wider net, Jerian Grant, Paul Zipser, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio are the only young players still on the team from that time. None of those players deserve much influence in how the franchise operates.

Still, no matter what the young players want, it’s clear Wade no longer fits on a rebuilding Chicago. They might get their wish.

Wade is set to earn $23.8 million in the final season of an expiring contract. That salary could prove useful in a bigger trade.

If bought out, Wade would count as dead money against Chicago’s cap at his buyout amount. They Bulls should obviously be amenable if he sacrifices enough, but a small discount doesn’t justify locking into that money rather than having a trade chip available.

If Chicago is deep into the cellar as expected after the trade deadline, a buyout would be completely logical then. Maybe the Bulls even assess the trade market sooner and conclude Wade’s huge expiring contract won’t facilitate a trade.

It’s easy to see a buyout happening eventually. In the meantime, Wade and his younger teammates will just have to get along. I trust Wade’s professionalism to make this situation at least tenable, but Fred Hoiberg might have his hands full building cooperation with all the people involved.