Time to see if the Lakers have figured out the Spurs puzzle

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If it is not Lakers vs. Spurs in a May best-of-seven series to be the Western Conference champion, it will be a little disappointing.

Sorry Mr. Cuban, Mr. Durant. It’s not personal, we do like you. You’re teams are entertaining and quite good. But Lakers/Spurs would match the two teams in the West best built for a title run right now, and it carries the weight of tradition.

Right now, if the Lakers and Spurs met, the Spurs should be the favorite.

They are 51-11, they have beat the Lakers both times the teams met this season. They are playing better than any team in the NBA right now — they dismantled the Heat by 30 points in a dominating performance just a few days ago. It was a clinic. They made 17 threes and shot 60.7 percent from beyond the arc. They still had 42 points in the paint. They had 22 points in transition. They had eight players in double figures scoring and nobody took more than 15 shots. The Spurs are not just defense anymore — although they still are seven in the league in points given up per possession.

And the Laker have yet to figure the Spurs out. They have yet to score 90 points on them in a game this season. In the teams first meeting the Spurs just crushed the Lakers. A more recent meeting saw the Lakers score about 11 points per 100 possessions below their season average against the Spurs.

Sunday, we’ll see if the improved Lakers that have found their own defensive energy of late and won six in a row can figure out these Spurs. This is not a statement game, because veteran teams like this don’t really take any one regular season game that seriously. But it is a test. It will show us where the teams are now and if the Spurs match up advantages are still that dramatic.

Here are three things to watch:

• Do the Lakers run the triangle offense? The Lakers need to run their sets, start the ball inside and work cutters off Pau Gasol in the high post, they need to establish the paint. Not only because they score more efficiently that way, but also because that can help slow the Spurs fast break attack. With that, the Lakers need to attack the offensive glass with their length and make the Spurs pay a price for running. Watch how many offensive rebounds the Lakers get, it will be telling. On the other hand, if Kobe Bryant decides to go rogue and take over the offense early, it could be a bad sign for the Lakers.

• Ron Artest on Manu Ginobili. The Lakers defensive surge since the All-Star break has been about Andrew Bynum playing well in the paint and Ron Artest on the perimeter. Can he slow down Manu? See if he can keep Ginobili from getting into the middle — the Argentinian likes to drive middle no matter where he gets the ball on the court, if you can keep him on the wings he is less effective (but still pretty effective).

• Tony Parker and Derek Fisher. Tony Parker should just dominate this matchup, but to the extent that Fisher can pull tricks out of his veteran bag of tricks to not let Parker take over — if he can force him to drive to help and not knock down floaters in the lane — the better for the Lakers.

Spurs GM still optimistic relationship with Kawhi Leonard can be salvaged

Associated Press
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — General manager R.C. Buford acknowledges star forward Kawhi Leonard is unhappy with the Spurs.

He remains optimistic the relationship can be salvaged.

Leonard has requested a trade from San Antonio because he is unhappy after missing most of last season with a right quadriceps injury. Buford would not comment on “speculation” of a trade demand, but agreed there is a fractured relationship between Leonard and the only franchise he has played for.

“Kawhi and his family mean a lot to the organization and to the community and while none of wish we are where we are, we’re going to do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him,” Buford said Thursday night as the Spurs made two late picks in the NBA Draft. “We’ll explore all of our options, but the first one would be to do what we can to keep Kawhi as part of our group.”

Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season but returned to play in nine games. He complained of discomfort and pain in the leg in his final game. Leonard sought an outside opinion after the Spurs cleared him to play, working with his own medical team in New York in an attempt to return to the court. The 6-foot-7 forward reportedly grew upset that the Spurs had questioned his rehabilitation process.

The Spurs listed him as out on their injury reports for much of the year citing “injury management.” While San Antonio was in the playoffs, losing in the first round to eventual repeat champion Golden State, Leonard was rehabbing in New York – which meant that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, when asked for the situation, deferred all comment to “Kawhi and his group.”

“I think all of us would wish that things would have gone differently,” Buford said.

The Spurs held a team meeting late in the season where veterans, led by Tony Parker, implored Leonard to return. Leonard said he was unable to due to the injury.

In the 2016-17 season, Leonard averaged a career-best 25.5 points and was third in the MVP voting. The 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time NBA defensive player of the year is due just over $20 million next season, and can become a free agent in the summer of 2019. He is eligible to sign a $220 million extension with San Antonio.

He is reportedly willing to walk away from that to play elsewhere, possibly in Los Angeles.

“I don’t know that timing is a factor in this from today … he’s under contract for another year, our goal is to keep him as part of our program for a long time,” Buford said.

 

NBA Draft Winners, Losers: Big nights for Phoenix, Dallas

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Let’s start with the obvious — this whole story is a fool’s errand. It really takes about three years to accurately assess who are the winners and losers in the NBA draft. Guys we thought were locks will turn out to be pretty pedestrian, guys we wrote off as projects down the board will impress. In three years, we’ll have a real sense of which teams read this draft well and nailed it.

But we don’t live in that world.

So here are my projections on the real winners and losers Thursday night in Brooklyn, starting with the guys who didn’t screw up the No. 1 pick.

 

Suns small icon Winner: Phoenix Suns.

It isn’t just that they didn’t screw up the top pick and landed in DeAndre Ayton, the guy most likely to be a franchise cornerstone star in this class. Although they did that. It was their move later to trade their pick at No. 16 (Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith) for Mikal Bridges — most likely the best “3&D” prospect in this draft. After this they have a starting lineup of Devin Booker, Bridges, Josh Jackson, and Ayton (plus a point guard). That’s a group worth watching — and they hired Igor Kokoskov as their new coach this summer because he’s strong on player development. It’s the start of something.

Phoenix also drafted French point guard Elie Okobo at 31 in the second round when a lot of teams thought of him as a first-round talent. Another smart move.

Loser: Michael Porter Jr.

A couple weeks ago, Porter was mentioned as a potential No. 2 selection to the Kings. But after teams got a look at his medical reports — he missed all but three games at Missouri following back surgery — they backed off. Rumors about his attitude didn’t help. Porter slid all the way down to Denver at 14. What that means to him: The No. 2 pick is slotted for a $7.3 million salary next season, the No. 14 makes less than $3 million. We’ll see if Porter can use this as motivation — and stay healthy.

One winner in this: The Denver Nuggets for grabbing him at 14. That is a good team with strong players where Porter can be brought along without unreasonable expectations.

Mavericks small icon Winner: Dallas Mavericks.

Mark Cuban and company traded up from No. 5 to No. 3 and landed Luka Doncic — they player they had highest rated on the board. This is a win for Doncic because he lands with a brilliant Xs and Os coach in Rick Carlisle who will put him in positions to succeed, plus Doncic gets mentored by Dirk Nowitzki. This pick also is a strong move because he should pair well with young point guard Dennis Smith Jr. — Doncic can run the pick-and-roll at times with Smith cutting and moving off the ball, and in the reverse Doncic has a good catch-and-shoot game. Dallas has options for playmaking now.

Also, nice second-round pickup of Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson. That’s a high IQ player who can step in as a reserve and help immediately.

Loser: Robert Williams.

The Texas A&M big man has the talent of a late lottery pick — the Clippers met with him a couple of times — but concerns about his attitude and work ethic saw him plummet all the way down the board to 27. Will he use this as motivation to play with a high motor all the time, or will he continue to coast? This brings us to…

Celtics small iconWinner: Boston Celtics (because they got Robert Williams).

This was a steal for Danny Ainge this late in the first round. At No. 27 you’re usually just hoping to get a guy who can develop into a role player in a few years. Williams is much more than that, he has the tools to be an elite NBA defender, and in college he was a defensive and rebounding force. In the NBA he’s going to be a rim running big, ala DeAndre Jordan — except Jordan fulfilled his potential. It’s up to Boston to get that out of Williams (and it’s up to Williams himself to work), but if they do this was another brilliant Ainge pick.

Loser: Golden State Warriors. They tried to buy into the second round as they did a year ago and pick up someone who fits their style — and this year they had $5.1 million to do it (more than the $3.5 million a year ago). However, other GMs remember how much heat the Bulls front office took for selling their pick to Golden State last year and them drafting Jordan Bell — Mr. “cash considerations” was playing a role in the NBA Finals — and nobody wanted to be in that position again. No second pick for the Warriors this year.

However, their first-round pick of Jacob Evans was a good one, he’s the kind of versatile player who fits into their rotation.

Winner: Puma.

The German soccer shoemaker shoe and apparel company wanted to get back into the basketball game, and the did it with a splash — their guys Ayton and Bagley went No. 1 and 2. That’s going to be a lot of free publicity and a lot of eyes on their players starting in Summer League and beyond. The company also landed guys with real potential in Michael Porter Jr. and Zhaire Smith.

Oh, and they hired Jay-Z as well. That’s a good week whatever else happens.

Winner: NBA Twitter

There were not going to be Woj bombs this year — ESPN was trying to clamp down on their news breakers Tweeting out the picks before they happened (as had been the case for a few years, with Twitter often two or three picks ahead of Adam Silver and the broadcast. Other major news breakers (such as Yahoo’s Shams Charania) were going to play along.

But if there is one thing NBA Twitter has taught us it’s that it will not be contained. It breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously.

Before long Twitter was a pick ahead of the broadcast again, and Adrian Wojnarowski was doing it in style, not saying who the pick was but….

NBA Twitter is the best.

Lonnie Walker’s Spurs hat appears as if it’s floating above his head (photo)

AP Photo/Kevin Hagen
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Basketball players don’t wear hats.

White Men Can't Jump (1992)

OK, scratch that. NBA players don’t wear hats.

But it has become tradition for draft picks to don a cap of the team that selected him.

So, even though Lonnie Walker‘s hair looks like this (via AP):

Pittsburgh Miami Basketball

…he put on a Spurs hat when they selected him No. 18:

NBA Draft Basketball

Even Elfrid Payton did a much better job cramming his do into his hat on draft night:

Walker, an athletic shooting guard who underperformed at Miami, was a surprising choice by San Antonio. The Spurs generally prioritize basketball intelligence over athleticism (though, to be fair, that’s hardly an absolute).

But no matter how Walker fits in San Antonio goes, it probably won’t be more awkward than this.

Report: 76ers trade Mikal Bridges to Suns for Zhaire Smith, future first-rounder

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Update: Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated:

Again, that is a ton to give up to move up six spots.

 

The 76ers drafting Mikal Bridges No. 10 was a dream come true. He was born in Philadelphia and grew up rooting for the 76ers. He stayed home for college, playing at Villanova. His mom even worked for the 76ers, and she was PUMPED when Adam Silver announced the selection tonight.

But the NBA is cruel.

Philadelphia has already traded Bridges – to the Suns for No. 16 pick Zhaire Smith and a future first-rounder.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

That 2021 Heat pick was unprotected for the Suns and potentially quite valuable. It’s always difficult to forecast that far into the future, but Miami – with an expensive and not-young roster – could drop considerably by then.

Did Phoenix add protections to the selection before flipping it? If not, that is a huge price to move up six spots, and I say that as someone who likes Bridges a lot. DeAndre Ayton and Bridges comprise a heck of a haul for the Suns, who are adding talent around Devin Booker.

But there are complications. Josh Jackson isn’t good enough to stress over, but he and Bridges could be a strange fit. Can either natural small forward play up or down a position?

And that Heat pick looms large. It’s reminiscent of Phoenix trading a future Lakers pick – which, incidentally, became Bridges – for Brandon Knight. That backfired. Perhaps, this works better.

Smith is a solid prospect, but maybe a strange fit in Philadelphia. He has big-man skills in a guard’s body. There’s nothing wrong with betting on the hard worker and athletic marvel developing, but he must to fit with Ben Simmons. Otherwise, the 76ers won’t have enough shooting.

Bridges was an easier fit, but apparently Philadelphia preferred Smith and the extra asset.