NBA Season Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

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Last season: 57-25, top seed in the West, which they rode all the way to their second consecutive NBA crown. They came within half-a-quarter of losing to Boston on their home court in Game 7, but no Kendrick Perkins and no balloons in the rafters this time gave room for a dramatic comeback win.

Head Coach: Phil Jackson, who says that this is his last season coaching. Probably. Expect him to play with the media on that topic all season, but behind closed doors he will use it as motivation for the three-peat run. Because he wants to one more ring he won’t give to Jeanie Buss.

Key Departures: Jordan Farmar, who was always a poor fit in the Lakers system and talked of wanting more playing time and a starting job. For those reasons we’re not sure why he went to New Jersey to back up Devin Harris, but still not a big loss for the Lakers.

Aside that, DJ Mbenga and Josh Powell were allowed to walk.

Key Additions: Steve Blake comes in at point guard and is a perfect illustration of what GM Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers do well — get players to fit the system. Blake is a solid NBA point guard, one who struggled the second half of last season when the Clippers decided to get out and run and he had to handle the ball in space. What he does is shoot the three, not make mistakes and play reasonable defense. Which is exactly what the role of the point guard is in the triangle. Blake is an okay fit most places, but he is a guy that is exactly what the Lakers need — and he may get more minutes than the aging Derek Fisher this season.

Matt Barnes will come off the bench to spell Ron Artest and gives the Lakers a little more toughness and wing defense. He’s a guy that fits the Lakers because he is versatile — he can guard twos or threes, and if you want to go really small he can even play some four. Not that the Lakers go small much.

Also in are draftees Derrick Caracter, Devin Ebanks, free agent center Theo Ratliff, and also Shannon Brown and Derek Fisher were re-signed. (Fisher for three years, which is a little surprising considering the decline in his play.)

Best case scenario: They win a third consecutive NBA title to send Jackson off in style, and just before the end of the season the Lakers bring back Mark Madsen so he can dance at the victory parade.

For that to happen:
The Lakers need to play a little more consistently in the regular season then be healthy and stay healthy through the playoffs.

Here’s the bottom line — while everyone was looking at Miami, the two-time defending world champions got better and deeper. Their two biggest weaknesses — point guard play and depth on the wing — were addressed. This is still the team to beat in the NBA and if you think they aren’t still hungry you haven’t met Kobe and Ron Artest.

The Lakers had the best regular season record in the West last season, but they needed six dramatic Kobe game-winners to get that. Sure, that’s why you have Kobe on your team, because he is a walking highlight reel. But live by the game-winning jumper, die by the game-winning jumper. The Lakers need to rest Kobe more during the season (same with all their key players) and that means winning a few more games by 17 and not a last second shot. Which is easier said than done in a deep west when you have a target on your back, but that is the task.

Also, In the regular season last year, the Lakers got lax about ball movement on offense, if they do that this year they pay a bigger price.

Come the playoffs, the Lakers still have the most talented, well-compiled roster in the Association when they are all healthy. The key is the Lakers long and agile front line is unmatched — and it means big things on both ends of the court. On offense teams simply cannot matchup the length and quickness of Bynum and Pau Gasol (with Lamar Odom off the bench). That often leads teams to pack the paint to stop LA (or slow them, really) giving the Lakers good looks from the outside. Something the Lakers did not take great advantage of last season, but the addition of Blake and Barnes may change that. Even when teams know what is coming Gasol and Bynum still get theirs, especially when the Lakers execute the offense.

The bigger advantage is on defense — that long front line protects the rim and covers the problems the Lakers have defending quick point guards. The Lakers have three guys now — Kobe, Artest and Barnes — who they can sick on wing players to slow them, but that can be less effective with little point guards. However, everything is better when Bynum is behind the play using his long arms to erase mistakes.

More likely the Lakers will: Go back to the finals at least. Predicting who comes out of the East now and that matchup is impossible. But unless the Lakers come back to the pack in the West they are the best team by head and shoulders in the conference. There are a lot of interesting teams on the second tier in the West, but they are all on the second tier for a reason.

The finals is where health — particularly the health of Bynum — comes in. The Lakers got a title last season with Bynum dragging his leg through the playoffs, that will not happen this season. They need him to be healthier, because the task will be tougher.

Prediction: 58-24, first in the West and another trip to the finals. Then it will all be about health, because if they are the Heat are going to find the same problems with that long front line everyone else does. Well, the Heat will find problems with that and Kobe.

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.