NBA Playoffs: The Hornets stun the Lakers

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You could hear a pin drop in the Staples Center. The Lakers were supposed to steamroll the short-handed New Orleans Hornets in the first round on their way to a potential three-peat, but the Hornets stunned the NBA world and took game one in the Staples Center. And unlike the Grizzlies’ win, the Hornets’ win didn’t come down to a single possession. While the Hornets never opened up a huge lead on the Lakers, they rarely trailed in the game, and were able to pull away at the end. Pau Gasol was invisible. Kobe Bryant was outplayed by Chris Paul down the stretch. For the first time in the Phil Jackson era, the Lakers lost a 1st-round series opener at home.

From the very beginning of the game, something didn’t seem quite right for the Lakers. As Jackson put it after the game, “I think we were late on everything. They were the aggressors, they stayed aggressive and beat us to balls…We’re not really good in morning games. Our just just weren’t really sharp all year. We really weren’t animated and really aggressive. I thought Ron Artest was probably our best player out there today.”

The Lakers seemed reluctant to get the ball inside, which is where their biggest advantage against the Hornets — or any other team, for that matter — should be. The ball rarely came to Pau Gasol in the post, and Gasol was passive when it did — at one point, he had Jarret Jack guarding him after a switch, but immediately passed the ball back out to the perimeter.

The Hornets were able to use their speed advantage to get into the paint, and outscored the Lakers 52-34 in the painted area. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol combined for one offensive rebound. Kobe Bryant had a great shooting night and looked unstoppable at times, but found himself playing one-on-five far more often than Phil Jackson would have liked.

When the Lakers fail to establish their inside game and are forced to rely on Kobe creating from the perimeter, there’s always a chicken-or-egg question: were the Lakers forced to rely on Kobe because their interior game wasn’t working, or because Bryant didn’t work hard enough to establish their interior game? In the post-game press conference, a visibly frustrated Jackson seemed to be of the latter opinion, saying that “There wasn’t a lot of direction towards [Pau Gasol]. There weren’t a lot of balls in the post. We didn’t get the ball inside, which is one of our strengths.”

Hornets coach Monty Williams, who admitted that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the way his team was able to handle the defending champions, seemed completely dumbfounded by Gasol’s ineffectiveness, and noted that Gasol shot over 70% against the Hornets when the two teams played each other in the regular season. Ron Artest came to play on Sunday, and was more than willing to bang for tough baskets and offensive rebounds inside, but for most of the game, the Lakers reverted to Kobe vs. The World offensively.

On defense, the Lakers had nothing resembling an answer for Chris Paul, who looked like the best point guard in the world on Sunday. He picked apart the Laker defense with precise passes. He used his ballhandling ability to work in between the Laker defenders and get easy pull-up jumpers before the help could react. He was active on defense and on the glass. He went hard to the basket and either made the basket or drew a foul. He had perfect control of the offense, and was the biggest reason the Hornets only turned the ball over three times all game. He was regularly able to force the Lakers to switch a big man onto him and break down the defense from there. With the precision of a surgeon, Paul rendered the Laker defense completely helpless.
After the game, Kobe was frustrated with the way his team defended Paul and the rest of the Hornets, saying “We didn’t do the coverages, defensively, that we  were supposed to do. We just didn’t do ’em.”

In the last five minutes of the game, Paul accounted for 15 points and one assist while Kobe went 0-4 with one turnover. Paul has been inconsistent for the last two seasons, and Kobe has the last two Finals MVP awards on his mantle, but Paul was the superior player in game one.

One thing that both teams should be worry about is the play and injury status of Aaron Gray — the little-known center made all five of his shots off the bench, was a game-high +25, and, according to Phil Jackson, outplayed the Laker bigs. Unfortunately for the Hornets, Gray twisted his ankle and suffered a mild sprain with about a minute left in the game. If he’s back at 100% on Wednesday, it’s bad news for the Lakers. If he’s not, the Hornets are going to be forced to give more minutes to D.J. Mbenga.

Was this game a fluke, or do the Lakers have to worry about whether or not they will advance to the second round? It’s clear that the Lakers will need to have Bynum and especially Gasol playing at a higher level than they did tonight. If the Lakers don’t use the advantage they have inside against the Hornets, they will make this into a much more even series than it should be on paper. They will need to get more out of their bench, especially Lamar Odom. They will need to find some way to stop Chris Paul, or at least slow him down.

If they do those things, the Lakers can easily take this series in five or six games, even with the setback they suffered tonight. But if the Lakers continue to allow Paul to run rampant and forget that two of the best big men in the NBA play for their team, Phil Jackson’s legendary career could end on a very low note.

Report: Nets debating whether or not to sign Kyrie Irving without Kevin Durant

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The Nets want to sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Brooklyn appears set to get Irving. Durant a much bigger unknown.

Brian Lewis of the New York Post:

The question is if they can’t land Durant, do they still want Irving?

It also has become an internal debate the Nets are having right now.

The Post has confirmed Brooklyn might have qualms about signing the enigmatic Irving if he isn’t bringing the injured Durant with him.

Irving brings chemistry concerns, to be sure. He’s mercurial, and his season with the Celtics raises legitimate questions about him leading a team.

But Irving is a major talent upgrade. To win at the highest levels, teams must assemble a lot of talent and hope for the best.

I’d also caution Brooklyn against assuming re-signing D'Angelo Russell would mean the team maintains its current culture. The Nets can’t freeze time. Situations change. People change. There’s no guarantee Russell on a lucrative contract and his teammates jell as well as contract-year Russell and his teammates did.

Keeping Russell might look like the safe route, but nothing is assured.

The other huge issue: Durant might not know where he’ll sign when Irving is ready to commit. The Nets could have to decide on Irving before knowing whether Durant will accompany him. At that point, would Brooklyn really spurn Irving and a chance at getting both stars? I can’t see that.

Really, with so much talk of Irving joining the Nets, I thought we’d already crossed that threshold.

Report: Bucks trading Tony Snell, No. 30 pick to Pistons

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For a team only lukewarm on paying the luxury tax, the Bucks are in a payroll crunch. Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic will be free agents this summer.

That’s why Milwaukee was trying to unload Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova.

But if they re-sign their key free agents to multi-year deals, the Bucks could face more payroll/tax concerns in 2020-21.

That’s why Milwaukee is willing to deal Snell and its first-round pick for Jon Leuer‘s burdensome contract – which carries a slightly lower salary than Snell’s next season ($9,508,043 vs. $11,592,857) and, more importantly, ends one year before Snell’s ($12,378,571 player option for 2020-21),

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This trade lowers Milwaukee’s team salary by about $4 million next season and $14 million the following season.

The Bucks could stretch Leuer and reduce team salary by an extra $6,338,695 next season. But that’d also lock in a cap hit of $3,169,348 each of the next three years.

Milwaukee can make that decision later in the summer. It’ll depend what other free agents – especially Lopez, who has only Non-Bird Rights (technically a form of Bird Rights – command. Clearing extra money this offseason could be useful in multiple scenarios.

If Lopez signs for the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to start at about $9 million), the Bucks could maintain Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic then exceed the cap to re-sign those three. But Milwaukee would be hard-capped at a projected $138 million. Stretching Leuer could help the Bucks stay under that line.

If re-signing Lopez requires more than the mid-level exception, Milwaukee could open about $14 million in cap space by waiving George Hill and renouncing all its free agents besides Middleton and Brogdon. Stretching Leuer would open even more cap room to spend on Lopez.

If Lopez leaves, the same math applies to an outside free agent who could get the mid-level exception or cap room.

This extra maneuverability comes at a cost, though a reasonable one.

Snell, who fell from the Bucks’ rotation, could be the Pistons’ starting small forward next season. Detroit was desperate for wing depth. Though Snell isn’t the biggest wing, he adds size to a group comprised of Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown and Langston Galloway.

The No. 30 pick is a helpful piece to the Pistons, who also have the No. 15 pick in tomorrow’s draft. But this is a weak-looking draft that thins considerably before the end of the first round.

Milwaukee also had to take Leuer, who has been ineffective for years.

Detroit gets helps now with Snell and potentially later with the No. 30 pick. In between, that extra year of Snell’s contract looks burdensome.

The Bucks are just happy to have it not be theirs.

Report: Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson to star in ‘Space Jam 2’

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LeBron James‘ first three picks in the All-Star draft reserve round: Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard.

Like many things LeBron does, that sparked theories about him recruiting stars to the Lakers. Casting for ‘Space Jam 2’ is another generator of recruiting speculation.

So, the overlap here will surely only intensify conspiracy theories.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Davis – who tipped his involvement in the film while still with the Pelicans – is already headed to the Lakers.

But Lillard is reportedly set to sign a super-max extension with the Trail Blazers, and Klay Thompson will reportedly re-sign with the Warriors.

Still, if Lillard and Thompson get a taste of Hollywood and enjoy it…

Report: Lakers didn’t negotiate Anthony Davis trade date with Pelicans for initial agreement

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With the Lakers’ trade for Anthony Davis, timing is everything.

The Lakers and Pelicans are reportedly set to complete the deal July 6. By making the trade then rather than July 30, the earliest the No. 4 pick could be traded as a signed player, the Lakers lose significant cap space.

With the later trade, the Lakers could use about $33 million of cap room then execute the deal with Davis getting his full $4,063,953 trade bonus.

With the earlier trade and Davis reportedly intent on receiving his full trade bonus, the Lakers project to have just $24 million of cap room.

That $9 million difference keeps the Lakers from getting a max free agent or reduces their spending power for role players.

Maybe the Lakers completely understood the ramifications of finalizing the trade July 6. It takes two teams to agree, and perhaps New Orleans – which would have faced complications flipping the No. 4 pick, not gotten him into summer league and had cap space tied up through July – refused to do the trade later.

But it sure doesn’t sound as if the Lakers knew what they were doing.

Ramona Shelburne on ESPN2:

If this was really their plan, they want to have a third star, this should have been central to the conversations with the Pelicans. And my understanding is that it was not, that it went all the way down the road and it was more, it has been described to me as, the Lakers called back – after everything had been discussed – about this.

It’s not necessarily too late for the Lakers to use max cap space and get Davis. They’re reportedly scrambling to include Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones in the trade.

But Wagner, Bonga and Jones have either positive or negative value. If they have positive value, the Lakers are surrendering even more in this trade. If they have negative value, the Lakers must surrender even more value – in the form of sweeteners – in the trade.

This could all be worth it. A team with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and a third star will be a championship contender next season. That matters most.

But if the Lakers handled this better, they could be in a stronger position to build around their stars. Though stars matter most, supporting casts also factor.

Or maybe New Orleans would have refused if the Lakers requested a July 30 trade date during initial negotiations. We’ll never know. But considering their massive haul, I suspect the Pelicans would have acquiesced if Los Angeles pushed. Perhaps, it would have taken a small additional asset going from the Lakers to New Orleans. But I can’t imagine it requiring more than that.

Now, by waiting until after to agreeing to terms with New Orleans, the Lakers have lost so much leverage. Their desperation shows, and preying teams – Pelicans or otherwise – will look to take advantage.