Josh Hart

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Report: With 2018 hopes fading, Lakers might aim for 2019 free-agency splash

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The Lakers have been building to chase two stars this summer. The biggest names tied to that plan:

So, where does that leave the Lakers?

Ramona Shelburne and  Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

As the Los Angeles Lakers become more realistic about the franchise’s chances of snaring superstars in the free agent class of 2018, the front office is increasingly looking through a longer lens in its team building process, league sources told ESPN.

The Lakers aren’t abandoning a summer pursuit of stars, but rather recalibrating on the possibility of a 2019 class that could include San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Golden State’s Klay Thompson and Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, league sources told ESPN.

This is just the Lakers posturing and spinning as they lose battles. They haven’t given up on the war, but it’s clear the fight is tougher than they anticipated.

Of course, the Lakers still want to add a star or two this summer. No team would wait an additional year if not necessary. A key step in that process is shedding Luol Deng‘s and maybe Jordan Clarkson‘s contracts. Letting Julius Randle walk – or preemptively trading him now – is also imperative. How do the Lakers maximize their return for Randle and Clarkson and minimize the cost of dumping Deng? Convincing teams they’re not desperate to make a splash this summer and are willing to wait until 2019.

On one hand, waiting would work. The Lakers can keep building with Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Larry Nance Jr. and Josh Hart. Of that group, only Nance’s cheap rookie-scale contract will expire by 2019 – and his cap hold ($6,817,172) will be low that summer. Each season the Lakers pay Deng and Clarkson, the easier it becomes to trade them.

On the other hand, waiting until 2019 will make it tricky to handle Randle, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez in free agency this summer. The Lakers shouldn’t commit to multi-year deals if they’re prioritizing 2019, but they also need to win in the interim to impress 2019 free agents. It’s tough to add as much talent on expiring and one-year contracts as this year’s Lakers did.

And how long until Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler fall through as targets? He’s not there yet, but Magic Johnson is moving one step closer to becoming like Jim Buss.

Kyle Kuzma gets 28, Lakers hand Celtics fourth straight loss 108-107

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kyle Kuzma scored 17 of his 28 points in a phenomenal fourth quarter, and the surging Los Angeles Lakers sent the Boston Celtics to their fourth consecutive loss, 108-107 Tuesday night.

Jordan Clarkson scored 22 points in the sixth consecutive home win by the Lakers, who have won three straight and seven of nine overall during their best stretch of the season. Los Angeles nearly gave it away by missing four free throws in the final 20 seconds, but Marcus Smart missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer for the Eastern Conference-leading Celtics.

Kyrie Irving scored 33 points for the Celtics, who opened a four-game road trip by extending their longest losing streak in nearly two years.

Kuzma hit five 3-pointers and dominated down the stretch before Irving and Smart, who added 22 points, led the Celtics back.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed two free throws for Los Angeles with 5.7 seconds left, but Smart’s final miss over Caldwell-Pope’s defense allowed Los Angeles to snap a four-game losing streak in this hallowed NBA rivalry.

Kuzma, the Lakers’ impressive rookie forward from Utah, had his best offensive game of the month. He put the Lakers ahead during a 3 1/2-minute stretch of the fourth quarter with 13 points and a behind-the-back assist to Larry Nance Jr. for a dunk that brought Staples Center to its feet.

Irving led the Celtics back within two points late, but Kuzma and Julius Randle came up with big baskets on offensive rebounds. Smart then hit two free throws for Boston with 19.2 seconds left after Josh Hart missed two for LA, trimming the lead to 106-105.

Clarkson hit two free throws, and Terry Rozier hit a twisting layup with seven seconds left before Caldwell-Pope’s missed free throws.

Lonzo Ball missed his fifth consecutive game with a sore left knee for the Lakers, but they’ve developed a solid offensive approach in the absence of the rookie point guard. Replacements Tyler Ennis and Alex Caruso contributed little offensively, but Clarkson had another outstanding playmaking game, and Randle contributed 14 points and 14 rebounds.

Irving staked Boston to a lead early in the fourth quarter, but Kuzma erased it with a pair of 3-pointers and the behind-the-back pass to Nance.

 

Chris Paul helps Rockets to 148-142 win over Lakers in double OT

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HOUSTON (AP) With James Harden in the locker room with a hamstring injury and the Houston Rockets desperate to end their losing streak, Chris Paul came to the rescue.

Harden scored 40 points before leaving with the injury late in the fourth quarter, and Paul scored 15 of his 28 points in overtime as the Rockets snapped a five-game skid with a 148-142 double-overtime win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night.

“He just willed us to win, and great players can do that,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Certain guys can just say, `We’re not losing,’ and `Whatever it takes,’ and that’s what he said tonight and that’s what he did.”

Los Angeles led by as many as 17, but couldn’t hold on as the team’s season-long losing streak stretched to six games.

Paul made a pair of free throws to tie it at 142 with about a minute left in the second overtime before Tarik Black blocked Kyle Kuzma‘s shot on the other end to give Houston the ball back. P.J. Tucker grabbed a rebound on a miss by Paul and put it back up to put Houston on top.

Tucker blocked a 3-point attempt by Kuzma, and Paul added two more free throws to make it 146-142 with 3 seconds left. Paul made two more free throws after that to secure the win.

The Rockets had hoped to limit Paul’s playing time in his second game back after missing three games with a groin injury. But with Harden out, he ended up playing 42 minutes.

“We worked too hard to let that game go,” Paul said. “We had fought. Different guys had been in and out of the lineup. James carried us all game long and different guys had to step up and it’s just will at that point. Let’s just figure out a way to win it.”

Julius Randle set season highs with 29 points and 15 rebounds, but fouled out with about three minutes left in the first overtime.

“It’s obviously frustrating but … we’re short-handed right now and it would’ve been a lot easier to kind of just pack it in and individually go out and try to put up big numbers until we get healthy or until we get to an easier part of the schedule,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “Our guys really came together tonight and really played well for most of the game.”

Los Angeles was up by 4 in the second overtime before a dunk by Black followed by a 3-pointer from Trevor Ariza made it 140-139 with 2 1/2 minutes remaining. The Lakers scored the next three points before Paul’s free throws tied it.

Ariza finished with a season-high 26 points.

Paul gave Houston its first lead since the second quarter with a 3-pointer that made it 127-125 with 2:40 remaining in the first overtime.

The Lakers got two free throws from Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart added a basket on a goaltending call to make it 131-129 with about a minute to go in the first OT.

Black tied it up before Hart missed a 3-pointer to give Houston the ball back. Paul put Houston on top with a short jumper with four seconds remaining, but P.J. Tucker fouled Ingram and he made both free throws with 0.8 seconds left in the first overtime to tie it at 133-133.

Paul had a shot to win it, but he missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Houston got a 3-pointer from Ariza followed by a three-point play from Harden to tie it at 119-all with about a minute left in the fourth. But Kuzma, who scored a career-high 38 points in his last game against Houston, made a 3-pointer a few seconds later to put the Lakers back on top.

Harden was injured when he missed a layup after that and was taken to the locker room.

Gerald Green tied it again with a 3-pointer with 17.7 seconds remaining.

Kuzma followed with a missed 3-pointer, and the Lakers got the ball back with 0.7 seconds left, but they didn’t have time to get a shot off.

Houston center Clint Capela had seven points and seven rebounds in his return after missing two games with an orbital fracture. He wore a mask in the first half to protect the injured area, but it seemed to be bothering him and he took it off at halftime.

 

Report: Lakers have “given up” on trading Deng, won’t include picks, young star

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When Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss signed Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng to oversized deals a couple of summers ago, part of their logic was they could include them in trades to bring an elite player to Los Angeles — these were big contracts but for useful players who could be moved. It was a terrible misreading of those players and the market. For the Lakers to move Mozgov last summer they had to attach former No. 2 pick D'Angelo Russell (a guy the Lakers were ready to move on from after drafting Lonzo Ball, but still this is a high pick they had to throw in to make it work).

The Lakers aren’t adding enough to the mix to move Luol Deng and are likely not going to be able to trade him, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on their Full Court Press show (transcription via Lakers Outsiders).

“You talk to teams around the league, no one is bailing the Lakers out with Deng’s contract. They’re not. Teams have asked for multiple first-round picks. They’ve asked for Brandon Ingram. They’ll ask for Kyle Kuzma. The Lakers have essentially given up on the idea that they can trade Deng.”

The Lakers shouldn’t move their future picks (they can’t deal anything to 2020), they need to keep building their foundation.

However, the Lakers need to move Deng to create the cap space for two max contracts next summer, which is still the goal (even if they are a longshot to land LeBron James). Not being able to trade Deng for an expiring contract means the Lakers will have to waive and stretch him, or as Eric Pincus cleverly suggested extend him a couple years, then waive and stretch him to lower the annual hit (but it will go on longer).

Even if the Lakers do that, they will still need to trade Jordan Clarkson (something Wojnarowski said they are confident they can do) and trade, or just let walk, Julius Randle. The Lakers also could not bring back Brook Lopez orKentavious Caldwell-Pope (both free agents), and they would need to let go of Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant and Tyler Ennis. That’s a lot of good depth gone from the roster, essentially leaving the core (Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Larry Nance Jr.) with the two max contract guys (if not LeBron, how about Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins?).

The Lakers likely will try to trade for Cousins or George at the deadline, but right now the Pelicans and Thunder are not moving those guys. The Lakers will have to wait to land them this summer.

Los Angeles also could sign just one max contract player this summer, then re-sign Randle or bring back Caldwell-Pope (or another non-max free agent) and count on growth. That likely does not make the Lakers instant contenders, but then again would adding Geroge and Cousins do that?

 

Five things to watch in NBA on Christmas Day

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For many fans, Christmas Day is the unofficial start of the NBA season. Forget the fact that things are kind of already decided — last year 13 of the 16 NBA teams that made the playoffs were already in that position, the season before it was 14 out of 16 — this is the day many fans start really paying attention to the NBA because football is winding down. So what should you be watching for on Christmas Day? We’re going to help you out with five things to keep an eye on.

1) Joel Embiid vs. Kristaps Porzingis: Battle of the modern big men. First, a plea to the basketball gods: Please let them play. Both played in their team’s most recent games, but in both cases the teams are understandably thinking about the long term and being cautious rather than just throwing them out there injured to win a December game. Whether or not Embiid plays for the Sixers may determine just how entertaining this game is: When Embiid is on the court the Sixers play at the level of a 56 win team, but when he is off the court they play at the level of a 24 win team (by net rating). He matters that much to them.

Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis are must watch because they epitomize how the modern NBA big man is evolving — when teams talk about “going small” it doesn’t have to be literally smaller. It’s about the style of play. If you’ve got a 7-footer who can step out and stretch the floor on offense, who is athletic enough to switch on defense and cover a guard on the pick-and-roll, plus get back and defend the rim, then you are playing “small.” Embiid and Porzingis can both do those things. Both have become the face of the franchise and cornerstone building blocks in the “small ball era” because of the versatility of their skills. And both are incredibly hard to defend.

Embiid is ahead on the growth curve right now because he is a bigger force defensively, plus he is more able to punish smaller defenders in the post. Porzingis is better as a threat from three, he and Frank Ntilikina have developed a good pick-and-pop chemistry that will be hard for the Sixers to defend.

Rarely will they be matched up on each other (keep an eye on Kyle O'Quinn, who should get a lot of run for New York) but watch them play and see the future of the big man in the NBA.

2) The Cavaliers vs. Warriors rivalry continues. LeBron James is among those who have said Cavs/Warriors isn’t a rivalry. Um, yes it is — you meet three straight seasons in the NBA Finals and it’s a rivalry. End of discussion.

Both of these teams are once again near the top of their respective conferences while not playing terribly focused basketball so far this season — both understand their season really starts mid-April. Also, both teams will be without a star guard: Stephen Curry is still out for the Warriors (right ankle sprain), and Isaiah Thomas (hip) will make his debut in the Cavaliers uniform later in the week but not on Christmas day.

Not that this game is lacking star power. LeBron James, playing at an MVP level this season while carrying a ridiculous workload, will be looking to measure where his team stacks up against the bar every team in the NBA is trying to clear. Kevin Durant has been the focal point since Curry went down, averaging 32.3 points per game, 9.6 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game (all while playing the best defense of his career). Then there is Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Love, and Dwyane Wade all suiting up in this one.

What makes this matchup an especially tantalizing mid-season game is these teams know each other and the scouting reports so well. Most NBA games teams might tweak their defense — “go under the pick vs. this point guard” — or try to massage their rotation a little for matchups, but basically, in the regular season they play their game. Teams are who they are. Come the playoffs there can be significant adjustments to take advantage of weaknesses or matchups — because the Warriors and Cavaliers know each other so well we will see far more of the chess match. They know the scouting reports and can fall back on them in a way they cannot against most teams during the season.

Plus, both these teams know this could well be a Finals preview again. It’s not a statement game, but winning can be a confidence boost (especially for the Cavaliers).

3) Houston’s offense vs. Oklahoma City’s defense. The Houston Rockets don’t just have the best offense in the NBA this season — 113.7 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com — but they are on pace to have the best offense in NBA history. They have been insanely good.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have the third-best defense in the NBA this season, it is the reason that while their “you take a turn, then I take a turn” offense has stumbled to start the season, the Thunder are now three games over .500 and the five seed in the West.

In a matchup of strengths, who comes out on top? The Thunder can throw Paul George and Andre Roberson at James Harden as defenders, with Steven Adams patrolling the paint behind them. The ball will be in Harden’s hands a lot, without Chris Paul the Rockets have become the Harden show again (he had two 51-point games in a row). The Rockets are jacking up a historic-pace of 43.1 threes per game (hitting 37.1 percent as a team) and the Thunder are not particularly good at chasing opposing teams off the arc — if Houston gets clean looks they will win this game.

In reality, this game may be won by which is better between the Rockets defense (which has been top 10 in the NBA this season but terrible in two recent losses) or the Thunder offense (which has been better lately, with more Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony accepting an off-the-ball role). The improving Thunder — winners of four in a row — may also come in with a chip on their shoulder, seeing this as a chance to make a “we are who you thought we were before the season” statement.

But the fun part watching is how the Thunder defense lines up when Harden has the ball.

4) The symphony of Boston’s team play (not just Kyrie Irving). This is just another game for Kyrie Irving, because Christmas is not really a holiday to him, it’s just another day for a televised game. Whatevs.

Irving is getting all the hype — and early MVP talk in some quarters — but Boston is the ultimate team this season. The Celtics are no one-man show, they are a unit with Brad Stevens pulling all the right strings. Their defensive switching is sublimely smooth and beautiful, and Al Horford is having his best defensive season, serving as a backstop in the paint and a guy who can contest a little on the perimeter. Jaylen Brown has been fantastic defensively, as has Marcus Smart, and the Celtics switch just about everything. Washington will force them to do just that with lots of picks, but Boston’s defense is deep with smart players.

On offense, Irving is playing within the system (most of the time), and Horford’s jack-of-all-trades game plays brilliantly in this offense. Jayson Tatum is getting open looks, and to his credit, the rookie is not hesitating to pull the trigger — he has a ridiculously good 49.5 percent three-point shooting percentage, and his true shooting percentage is 64.6. That’s incredible for a perimeter player (or even a guy who gets his shots at the bucket). Boston moves the ball, moves off the ball, and gets clean looks.  Watch Boston and enjoy the NBA’s best team this season.

5) Will Lakers show Timberwolves what grit looks like? Minnesota is 19-13 on the season, they are loaded with young talent led by Karl-Anthony Towns, they have the fifth best offense in the NBA, and they are on pace to break a playoff draught that dates back to when “Hollaback Girl” was just released (the longest in the NBA).

Still, Minnesota feels like a mirage, a team not as good as their talent or record (they have played the second easiest schedule in the league so far). They have the 25th ranked defense in the NBA and Towns — despite his world of talent and potential — is disinterested on that end of the court. The Timberwolves are getting wins because coach Tom Thibodeau is running his stars into the ground — Andrew Wiggins is third in the NBA in minutes played, Towns seventh, and Jimmy Butler is 14th. There are rumors all over the league of friction between Thibodeau and his young stars.

Christmas Day the Timberwolves take on a Lakers team that is also is young, not quite as talented, but plays hard every night for coach Luke Walton, defends, and shows grit. The Lakers have shown the heart Minnesota lacks. The Lakers have been playing better lately as Lonzo Ball’s decision making and shooting are showing more confidence, as Brandon Ingram is developing into a dangerous scoring threat, and as Kyle Kuzma keeps scoring like a guy who belongs in the Rookie of the Year conversation. Los Angels gets a lot out of guys like Josh Hart and Julius Randle, and Larry Nance Jr. is a keeper and a draft steal by the Lakers. Walton trusts his young players, goes deep into his bench every game, and has the Lakers with the seventh best defense in the NBA this season (although it has had a couple stumbles of late).

Who wins out, the more talented team with the franchise player, or the team playing more as a unit and with more grit? It makes an interesting desert to a strong NBA lineup on Christmas Day.