The Lakers problem isn’t Kobe, it’s Gasol. And defense.

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It’s easy and maybe even trendy to say it was Kobe’s fault.

It wasn’t.

True, Sunday the Lakers offense against Boston Celtics was a heavy dose of Kobe Bryant. And way too much Kobe in isolation. It’s an easy storyline to say Kobe shot too much, but it’s not wholly accurate.

The reality is there is a much more symbiotic relationship between Kobe taking over and his teammates not stepping up. Kobe doesn’t need a lot of provocation to step into a vacuum and fill it up with shots (shots he was largely hitting against the Celtics Sunday, going 16 of 29). His teammates are fully capable of laying back, and, well, you’ve seen the result. It’s a spiral — as Kobe tries to fill in more his teammates tend to stand around more and the result is stagnant isolation. That’s what happened Sunday, and Phil Jackson for one backed Kobe saying it was more about his teammates.

The hard truth, it was more about Pau Gasol.

He all too often gets referred to as Kobe’s sidekick, but that’s not accurate. They are, if not equals, equally important to the Lakers winning. And Sunday Kevin Garnett took Gasol out of his game. Gasol was 5-of-13 shooting overall but just 1-6 from the midrange. His normally deadly elbow jumper ended up 0-3. He looked uncomfortable.

Darius Soriano at the Laker blog Forum Blue & Gold said that the Lakers have been inconsistent this season because Gasol has been inconsistent.

This year, we’ve seen a less consistent Gasol. In December, Pau had nearly as many games where he scored 10 or less points (3) as he did 20 or more (4). In January, if you raise that standard to the number of games he’s scored 13 or less points (6) and compare it to games of 20 or more points (8) you see a similar trend. And while his rebounding numbers have not fluctuated as much, the point still stands: I’m having trouble recalling a time during Pau’s stint as Laker where there’s been as much wonder surrounding what he’ll produce on a given night.

Gasol’s most recent 5 game stretch is a perfect example of this. Against the Mavs, Nuggets, and Jazz here are Pau’s numbers (points/rebounds): 23/5, 19/13, 20/7. However, in the two most recent contests versus the Kings and Celtics, Gasol gave the Lakers 9/11 and 12/7.

In looking at Lakers’ losses, you see a similar trend. In those 15 games that the Lakers trailed at the final buzzer, Gasol has had 13 or less points in 7 of them. Against the top 4 teams (Dallas, Miami, San Antonio, Boston) he’s scored 23, 17, 9, and 12 points respectively.

The question needs to be asked if the Gasol is the problem or a bellweather for the problem. But his inconsistencies mirror the team.

Gasol isn’t the only thing that has been inconsistent for the Lakers, so has their defensive effort.

The Lakers have had stretches of good defense, particularly since the return of Andrew Bynum to the lineup. That coincided with a change in defensive philosophy about wing defenders working to keep guys on the perimeter in front of them rather than just funneling to big men. It worked for a stretch.

But there are all sorts of problems, ones that lead to inconsistent play. Derek Fisher no longer can keep a guy in front of him on the perimeter, and his backup Steve Blake has ben just as bad. The Lakers Sunday went with the defense they used in the finals last year — Kobe on Rondo begging him to shoot the jumper and Fisher chasing Ray Allen off screens — but it didn’t work. Ray Allen shot 8-of-12 and had 21 points as he found gaps. Rondo has become much better at using that space he is given by defenders this year. The Celtics improved, the Lakers found out the hard way.

Speaking of inconsistent, meet Ron Artest. The guy who won the Lakers Game 7 of the NBA finals was an anchor on them Sunday. Call it an off game — letting Pierce put up 32 while shooting 1-of-10 himself — but there have been more of those games this season than last.

Because the Lakers have the last two NBA championship rings, there is still the feeling that at some point they will flip the switch again. And if they do the Spurs won’t be able to do anything about it.

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s not time to panic for Lakers fans, but it is time for them to be concerned. If the inconsistencies of the regular season carry over to the playoffs the Lakers will have problems. They are not so much more talented than other teams that they can just coast into the finals again. Maybe they are bored and come the playoffs that will be different.

But will the instant recognition and execution honed over playing 82 games be there to draw on? Or will the playoff Lakers be inconsistent too?

If so, they will be gone long before Jackson gets his chance to make a last stand in the finals.

Likely No. 1 pick Zion Williamson leaves Duke-North Carolina game with knee injury

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Zion Williamson will probably be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

He’s a generationally good prospect. The rest of this draft also looks relatively weak.

In fact, Williamson has such a stranglehold on the top pick, some have suggested he sit out the rest of his freshman season.

His injury during Duke’s game against North Carolina tonight will only heighten those calls.

Duke:

Hopefully, Williamson is OK.

And hopefully, the system changes. The NCAA is a cartel in which schools conspire to cap compensation for athletes at a scholarship plus some expenses. In a free market, Williamson would earn far more.

Unfortunately, it probably can’t be both. If Williamson escapes this without major injury, the status quo will likely endure.

But, if this injury even allows him to play again this season, it might be a warning shot that causes him to sit until he can enter the NBA draft.

Again, I hope he’s healthy enough to make that decision for himself.

Jayson Tatum guarantees Celtics will win 2019 NBA championship

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Friday morning, Jayson Tatum guaranteed the U.S. team would beat the World team in the Rising Stars game that night. The U.S. team won.

So, Tatum was asked Saturday morning whether he wanted to guarantee anything for that night. He guaranteed he’d win the Skills Challenge. He won.

So, then ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Tatum whether he wants to guarantee anything else. And he really let it ride.

Tatum:

We’re going to win the Finals this year. February 16th, mark it. Jayson Tatum says we’re going to win the Finals this year.

Obviously, Tatum wasn’t going to pick against Boston. But this wasn’t that. He could have easily avoided such a grand proclamation.

Instead, even if he were just caught up in the emotion of an All-Star Saturday Night victory and taking the interview especially seriously, Tatum put a little more attention and pressure on the Celtics.

I’m not convinced that’s what this team needs.

Kristaps Porzingis reportedly gave Knicks wish list of trade destinations: Nets, Clippers, Heat, Raptors

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Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said Kristaps Porzingis will sign long-term with Dallas this summer, and Porzingis he was on the same page.

But he will be a free agent. Restricted, but a free agent, nonetheless.

Porzingis’ exit from the Knicks provided a clue about where he’d want to go if he explores leaving the Mavericks.

Marc Stein of The New York Times in his newsletter:

The four teams Porzingis had on his wish list of trade destinations were the Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors, according to two people with knowledge of the list who were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Porzingis had little leverage to get to any of these teams. Because he’ll be a restricted free agent, the Knicks or any team acquiring him would retain immense team control over him.

The Nets and Clippers project to have cap space this summer. The Heat and Raptors don’t.

But even if Porzingis signs an offer sheet elsewhere, Dallas will will likely match it.

Still, Porzingis will become an unrestricted free agent someday – 2020 in the unlikely event he accepts his qualifying offer or a future year if he signs a multi-year deal this summer. It’s probably best to file away this list until then.

Kyrie Irving on video with Kevin Durant: ‘Me and one of my best friends talking’

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The Knicks opened double-max cap space for next summer. Kevin Durant‘s company is moving to a new office in New York. Kyrie Irving backed away from his commitment to re-sign with the Celtics.

Plenty of people were already connecting dots when this video emerged of Durant and Irving talking at the All-Star game (in which, not for nothing, they jelled).

Ben Stinar of Amico Hoops:

Irving, via MassLive (warning: language in the above video):

It’s just crazy. This is the stuff that just doesn’t make the league fun. It doesn’t make the league fun. Nobody helps promote the league even more by doing bulls— like that, of just putting fictitious things on what we’re talking about. It’s crazy.

It’s a video of me and one of my best friends talking. And then it turns out to be a dissection of a free agency meeting? Do you get that? Like, do you get that? And then I’m asked questions about it? That’s what disconnects me from all that s—.

That wasn’t a denial.

Still, it’s hard to believe Durant and Irving really discussed free agency in a hallway with so many people passing. There are far more discreet places to have that conversation.

Like a restaurant in Miami where they were spotted together:

I understand Irving’s exasperation with this, just as I understood Durant’s testiness over constant speculation. They should be allowed to spend time together as friends without it turning into a bigger deal.

But there is immense interest in where they play next year. People will continue to search for clues – some that prove insignificant, some that might prove significant – about the stars’ futures.

So, I’m at least glad Irving addressed this. It’s going to get discussed either way. Better for him to enter his perspective into the conversation.