A tale of two contenders

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The Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers are the crown jewels of the league. Both lead their respective conferences, both will have homecourt advantage through their conference Finals, both are elite.

And Wednesday they provide a fascinating cross-examination of one another.

The Lakers mailed one in in Atlanta, getting wiped off the map by the Hawks 109-92. It was not pretty. The Lakers have very little to blame. It wasn’t a matchup problem. It wasn’t a back to back. It was the tail end of a road trip, but still. To be down by double digits nearly the entire second half is pretty incredible for a team many consider to still be the best in the league. The answer? Even the Hawks announcers knew, the Lakers had no interest in being on the floor tonight.

It’s nothing new for the Lakers, who have lost three of their last five, two by double digits in routs. This team has simply played lazy for the majority of the season, turning it on for select quarters in most games, and yet there they are, top of the standings, top of the world. For all this team’s talent and ability, their effort indicates that they simply do not care about the regular season. I could spout off to you something about how true champions give their all in every game, every contest, but that’s a lie.

This is the NBA, and 82 game death march, and only the strongest survive, sure, but part of being strong is knowing when to drag your feet to conserve strength. The Lakers just happen to be dragging their feet, occasionally coming to a complete stop and getting trod over. Even the most confident Laker fan has to wonder how much is simple boredom and how much is actual problems with the team, most notably their play inside. They’ve earned the faith of the acolytes, but they’d better deliver at the altar.

Meanwhile, the Cavs let the Bucks who, no lie, they could very well end up seeing in the second round, hang around for 48 minutes, needing a LeBron James steal on the last possession off a horrible Luke Ridnour pass to ice it. This despite a 45-9 free throw advantage for the Cavs, at home. What’s more, if you watched the game, the Cavs were plugged into this one. While the Lakers were FedExing theirs in, the Cavs were locked in, putting forth the same effort that’s gotten them where they’re at. Yet the result was still in doubt, even with everything that was in their favor.

Last year the Cavs blistered the regular season, torching their way into the Conference Finals, laughing and dancing all the way. And all they got for it was a lousy t-shirt that said “Dwight Howard WUZ HERE.” And a win’s better than a loss. But so much of a team’s success depends on the ability to “turn it on” and get hot at the right time. Peak too early and you’re Cleveland last year. Peak too late and you’re the Pistons nearly every year in the 2000’s.

We’ve got two contenders who are still the favorites. Two titans who are still the Lords of their conferences. But to pretend that the Lakers loss is meaningless is as shortsighted as putting too much stock in it and equally foolish. And to assert that all is well with Cleveland because they got the W is to forget their history, and to ignore that the Lakers got blown out, but they also didn’t give anything, either.

James Harden wants Carmelo Anthony to get another chance in NBA

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The James Harden/Carmelo Anthony marriage in Houston (with Chris Paul as the third wheel) simply did not work out. It lasted 10 games and was more annulment than marriage, Anthony couldn’t/wouldn’t accept the role Houston needed him to fill.

The Rockets traded Anthony to Chicago on Tuesday, and after the Feb. 7 trade deadline the Bulls are expected to waive ‘Melo, making him a free agent.

There are questions around the league about where — and even if — Anthony will sign once he is a free agent. Plenty of fans don’t want their team to take him on, but ‘Melo has a supporter in former teammate Harden. Here is what the reigning MVP told ESPN’s Ian Bagley.

“I just want to see him hoop, see him happy, and I mean, he deserves it, honestly,” Harden said of Anthony on Tuesday. “Like, he’s put so much time and effort into this game that he should be able to hoop and still have fun playing the game of basketball.”

“Yeah, man. Melo is one of the best to ever hoop. He loves the game of basketball,” Harden said. “Some guys just do it just because they’re gifted or they’re athletic or they can shoot the basketball. There’s not that many players that like, love to hoop. … It kind of sucks that it didn’t work out. It is what it is. I just hope he finds somewhere where they can embrace him and he can still hoop. So he [gets to] make that decision that he’s done [playing].”

Probable lottery pick and injured Vanderbilt guard Darius Garland declares for NBA draft

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Vanderbilt freshman Darius Garland suffered a season-ending knee injury in November.

But that will actually accelerate his ascension toward the NBA.

Garland:

Garland still looks like a lottery pick. This draft is top-heavy, and a player as skilled as him likely won’t fall far.

The 6-foot-3 point guard is an excellent shooter. He also has the ball-handling, footwork and quick release to get his shot off against most defenses. He looks like he could become a prototypical lead guard in the modern NBA, a scorer who distributes enough.

Still, his torn meniscus hurts. Not only will teams want to know the status of his knee, he’s missing valuable developmental time during the college season. Garland still needs to refine his court vision, and it’d be nice if he clamped down defensively.

It was clear well before Garland enrolled at Vanderbilt he was on the one-and-done track. His injury allows him to drop the pretense of college basketball being a priority.

Report: Grizzlies will listen to trade offers for Marc Gasol, Mike Conley

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Last summer there was a lot of buzz around the league, the Memphis Grizzlies might finally end the grit ‘n grind era, trade their stars and embark on a needed rebuild. But then owner Robert Pera bought out two minority owners and the word quickly came down — forget a rebuild, this was a team that could win 50+ games and would make the playoffs.

After a fast 15-9 start to the season,  Grizzlies have lost six in a row and 12-of-13, having dropped to 14th in the West. Last week, those stars — Marc Gasol and Mike Conley — met with Pera face-to-face.

Now, Memphis considering trading Gasol and Conley, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

There will be interest from other teams, but getting a deal done in the 18 days before the trade deadline will be difficult. Especially considering both Gasol and Conley have huge salaries, and sources have said the Grizzlies have wanted to attach Chandler Parsons — who is owed $25.1 million next season and is almost unplayable — to any trade.

It’s very possible that these talks, especially around Conley, continue into this summer.

Gasol, who has seen his skills decline this season at age 34 (he has a 17.1 PER that is above average but the lowest since his rookie season, and his defense has not been nearly as good as it once was), is expected to opt out of this contract for next season, so any team that trades for him would want a wink-and-a-nod deal that they could re-sign him next summer. Big men are in demand, but will teams give up much for a potential rental?

Conley is a borderline All-Star point guard and a solid defender. Conley is averaging 19.8 points a game, 6.1 assists, is shooting 35.4 percent from three, and has a PER of 20.

Conley is making $30.5 million this season, has a fully guaranteed $32.5 million next season and an early termination option for 2020-21 at $34.5 million, and he will almost certainly not opt out and stay in the contract for that season. Not many teams can take on that much salary, no matter how good Conley is.

Former Kings executive pleads guilty to defrauding team out of $13.4 million

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A former top Sacramento Kings executive has pleaded guilty to siphoning $13.4 million from the team to buy Southern California beachfront properties, according to court records.

The records show former chief revenue officer Jeffrey David pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges of wire fraud and identity theft. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison when he is sentenced April 15.

David was charged last year with forging the team president’s signature to divert sponsorship payments to a bank account he controlled.

Prosecutors say the scheme was uncovered soon after David left the Kings in June and accepted a similar post with the Miami Heat. The Heat said in September that the team and David parted ways..