Western Conference Round 2 Playoff Preview: Los Angeles vs. Dallas

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SEASON RECORDS
Mavericks: 57-25 (No. 3 seed in Western Conference)
Lakers: 57-25 (No. 2 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Lakers 2-1, and Los Angeles dominated the last two between these teams in March (during the Lakers post All-Star Game hot streak).

PLAYOFF SERIES
Mavericks: defeated the Portland Trailblazers 4-2
Lakers: defeated New Orleans Hornets 4-2

SERIES SCHEDULE (times Eastern)
Game 1 – Mon May 2 at L.A. Lakers 10:30PM (TNT)
Game 2 – Wed May 4 at L.A. Lakers 10:30PM (TNT)
Game 3 – Fri May 6 at Dallas 9:30PM (ESPN)
Game 4 – Sun May 8 at Dallas 3:30PM (ABC)
Game 5 * Tue May 10 at L.A. Lakers TBD (TNT)
Game 6 * Thu May 12 at Dallas TBD (ESPN)
Game 7 * Sun May 15 at L.A. Lakers 3:30PM (ABC)
* if necessary

KEY INJURIES
Lakers: Kobe Bryant has a sprained ankle that is going to continue playing through. After a few days off he should be near 100 percent.
Mavericks: Caron Butler has been close to return after knee surgery and will push to be back for this series, although how much he can play even if he does return is a valid question.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per possession)
Lakers: Offense 107.9 (7th in NBA); Defense 101.3 (6th in NBA)
Mavericks: Offense 107.6 (8th in NBA); Defense 102.3 (7th in NBA)

THREE KEY LAKERS

Andrew Bynum. In the final couple games of the New Orleans series, the Lakers seemed to find their defensive stride again. Andrew Bynum is at the heart of that; his ability to contest shots at the rim and rebound is key. He will have a stiff challenge as he will have Tyson Chandler, one of the best defensive centers in the game on him. But Bynum needs to keep Chandler occupied so he is not the spectacular help defender Chandler can be.

Pau Gasol. He will be matched up on Dirk Nowitzki in a battle of two of the best power forwards in the game. Nobody stops Nowitzki, but if Gasol can make him work on the defensive end and contest those fadeaways he can at least make the big German less efficient it will go a long way to helping the Lakers chances.

Lamar Odom. He will come off the bench and get a lot of time on Dirk Nowitzki, he gives the Lakers another long defender to throw at him and one more comfortable out on the perimeter as a defender than Gasol. Both the Lakers and Mavericks bring scoring off the bench with their sixth men, but the Lakers with Odom bring more size and that can be key for Los Angeles.

THREE KEY MAVERICKS

Tyson Chandler. He is potentially the difference maker in this series — he needs to be able to mark Andrew Bynum and still be a fierce help defender in the paint. He is going to have to own the boards. He was a dominant force in the Portland series (especially Game 5) but he going to have to play like that or better for Dallas to have any chance in this series.

Dirk Nowitzki. Obviously, Dirk is at the heart of the Mavericks offense. But he also will have to guard Pau Gasol on defense. Nowitzki would like to make Gasol work so hard on defense that his offense is less efficient. He’ll also have to rebound and make plays inside to negate the Lakers size up front. He was a force against Portland but he will have to play better this round.

Jason Terry. Last time these two met Terry’s biggest play was to push Steve Blake then start a little ruckus that got Matt Barnes ejected. He’ll have to do more than that now. No, we don’t mean push Kobe, we mean scoring. Terry carried the Mavericks offense for stretches against Portland with his quickness and shot making, and he will have to step up and score a lot against the Lakers to give them an edge in bench play.

OUTLOOK

The last two times these two teams met in the regular season, the Lakers dominated and won handily. In the second game the Lakers even sent a little message, having Pau Gasol in the game late in the fourth quarter well after the game had been decided. The Lakers wanted Dallas to know who was the alpha dog.

The Lakers went through a slump since then, but seemed to get that footing back at the end of the Hornets series. Los Angeles looked like a contender again.

Dallas played physical ball against Portland, but they have struggled to stand up to the Lakers brand of physicality in recent contests. The Lakers are longer, a little more athletic and with that more skilled. Plus, they have traditionally struggled to stop Kobe Bryant from going off (remember te 62 points in three quarters). It’s a tough combo to deal with. Dallas just doesn’t run into that and it throws them off their game. Dallas may be the deeper team, but that is not going to help much now when the stars can play 40 minutes a night.

Dallas could use some big minutes from Roddy Beaubois, who is back from another injury and had an off regular season but who provides the kind of quickness and playmaking the Lakers struggle to contain at the point. If not from Beaubois, Dallas needs to get that from somewhere.

Dallas in beating Portland stood up to a team that wants to be physical and Dallas closed the series out by winning on the road. That is what Dallas has to do to have a chance in the next round, they just have to do it against a much better team than they just faced.

PREDICTION

Dallas can push the Lakers when Tyson Chandler is playing well. But unless they get something from Beaubois or some unexpected offense from somewhere, it’s hard to see how this ends much differently than the teams’ regular season meetings. Given the Lakers penchant for closing series out on the road, we’ll say

Lakers in 6.

Report: Chris Paul increasingly expected to start season with Thunder

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Last week, the Thunder had an expensive point guard who’s into his 30s and didn’t fit a team shifting into rebuilding without Paul George.

Same story now.

Oklahoma City traded Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul to acquire draft picks and shed long-term salary. Getting Paul as a player was of minimal concern. That’s why the Thunder worked with him to flip him. But a team like the Heat wanted draft picks just for taking the three years and $124,076,442 remaining on Paul’s contract.

So, Oklahoma City might hold onto Paul, after all.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The 34-year-old Paul is past his prime. But he’s still good. It’d be interesting to see him once again as his team’s best player after he spent so much time stuck in the corner watching James Harden.

Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams could form the core of a solid team this season. Paul can run an offense, and Adams (pick-and-roll) and Gallinari (pick-and-pop) offer nice complementary skills. If Andre Roberson is healthy or if a young player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nerlens Noel, Terrence Ferguson or Hamidou Diallo takes the next step, Oklahoma City could make real noise.

The Thunder’s biggest challenge: They play in the loaded Western Conference. That makes it far more difficult to make the playoffs. But in terms of team quality, Oklahoma City could be in the thick of competitiveness.

If Paul and Gallinari stay healthy. That can’t be assumed, though Adams can do some dirty work to keep those two clean.

The Thunder have tremendous draft capital – so much of which is tied to the fates of the Clippers, Rockets, Heat and Nuggets. Oklahoma City could tank and improve its draft position further and sooner. But owning so many picks from other teams allows the Thunder to try to win now while simultaneously rebuilding. They don’t necessarily have to waste seasons in the basement just to build themselves back up.

It will probably be easier to trade Paul on Dec. 15. That’s when most free agents who signed this summer become eligible to be traded. Right now, too many teams have untradable players, making it difficult to match Paul’s high salary. Generally, the more of Paul’s contract the Thunder pay out, the easier it’ll be to trade him.

But if Paul declines sharply or gets hurt, his value could diminish even further. There’s risk in waiting, though an injured Paul might allow Oklahoma City to tank anyway.

The Thunder must also cut a few million of salary before the final day of the regular season to avoid the luxury tax. That’s a priority.

So, Oklahoma City will make some move – Paul or otherwise.

But it appears likely we’ll see Paul play for the Thunder. It’ll be a return to Oklahoma City after he played home games there with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets following Hurricane Katrina.

This isn’t the reunion Paul or the Thunder appeared to desire when the Westbrook trade was agreed upon. I still think it could be pretty cool.

Ben Simmons reverses course, withdraws from Australia’s Word Cup squad

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ben Simmons‘ new contract extension with the Philadelphia 76ers came with bad news for Australian basketball fans: The Melbourne-born NBA All-star won’t play for the Boomers at the World Cup.

Hours after Simmons and the 76ers agreed to a $170 million, five-year contract extension on Tuesday, Simmons said he preferred to spend time with his new teammates in September instead of travelling to China for the Aug. 31-Sept. 15 World Cup.

“I wanted to let everyone know that after consulting with my representation, I’ve made the difficult decision to forego playing in the World Cup in China,” Simmons said in a statement.

“Ultimately, we decided it was best that I use the time in September to return to Philadelphia to acquaint myself with my new teammates and prepare for the upcoming NBA season.”

Simmons had been selected for Australia’s World Cup squad and had earlier indicated he planned to play the tournament in China.

He now plans to play only for the Boomers in two exhibition games against the United States in Melbourne on Aug. 22 and 24 at a stadium that is expected to be sold out – 50,000 fans – for each game. He also said the Olympics next year in Tokyo remain on his schedule.

“I will still be heading back home to Australia to host my camps as well as train and play with the Boomers in the upcoming exhibition games,” Simmons said. “I’m really excited about the talent we have on the Boomers squad, especially moving closer to 2020 where I will be honored and humbled to represent my country on the world’s biggest sporting stage at the Olympics in Tokyo.”

Simmons was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016. He made his NBA debut in the 2017-18 season and was the Rookie of the Year. He was an All-Star for the first time last season. He has averaged 16.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.9 assists in his two seasons.

Australia’s World Cup lineup is set to feature San Antonio’s Patty Mills, Joe Ingles of Utah Jazz, Phoenix center Aron Baynes, Cleveland’s Matthew Dellavedova, former No. 1 draft pick Andrew Bogut, Detroit center-forward Thon Maker and Simmons’ 76ers teammate Jonah Bolden.

 

Just a reminder, after draft and free agency Wizards have still not named official GM

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When Wizards owner Ted Leonsis finally ended Ernie Grunfeld’s run as team GM back in April — to the joy of Wizards fans everywhere — it was expected they would have a new head of basketball operations in place by the draft.

Nope.

So by the start of free agency, to guide the Wizards through this tumultuous summer?

Nope.

Tommy Sheppard has been doing the job on an interim basis, and as Jeff Zillgit of the USA Today points out a lot of league talk in Las Vegas was about why Leonsis just hasn’t given Shepard the job.

Team executive after executive had the same question when the Washington Wizards’ unresolved top front-office job opening came up. “Why not just give Tommy the job?”

Tommy is Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards’ longtime exec, who has been running basketball operations since owner Ted Leonsis decided not to bring Ernie Grunfeld back. Sheppard ran the draft, free agency and the Wizards’ Summer League team, but he doesn’t have the full-time job.

A couple of more prominent names were linked to the Wizards job at points. There were reportedly talks with Tim Conley, who built Denver into a real threat, but he decided to stay in the Rockies. There were rumors of Masai Ujiri, but he has chosen to stay in Toronto after winning a title.

At this point, after Sheppard has built the team for this coming season, is Leonsis really going to bring in someone else?

The Wizards have decisions to make. This is a young roster not ready to be a threat in the East, but with Bradley Beal and the injured John Wall (likely out for the season after tearing his Achilles), they also are capped out. So far they have turned away calls from other teams about a Beal trade (nobody is calling about a Wall trade with his max contract extension just kicking in).

Come July 26 the Wizards can offer Beal a three-year, $111 million extension, both sides are talking and the offer is expected to be made. That’s when the big decision comes — if Beal doesn’t sign that offer the Wizards have to look at trading him. Beal has spoken numerous times in the past about wanting to stay with the Wizards, but there was plenty of informed league speculation at Summer League that he is frustrated with the franchise and may not sign the extension, essentially forcing his way out. It’s something to watch in the coming weeks.

It probably would be nice to have a locked-in head of basketball operations by then, but who knows what Leonsis will do.

Cameron Payne reportedly agrees to partially-guaranteed contract with Toronto

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Cameron Payne was the starting point guard at one point early in the season in Chicago (until Kris Dunn returned), it didn’t last long, and by the middle of the season he was waived. The Cavaliers picked him up in a limited role at the end of the season.

Payne played for Dallas at Summer League and needed to impress there to have a shot a roster spot for next season. He did, averaging 20 points per game on 51 percent shooting, and he had one 32-point game.

The Toronto Raptors will bring Payne and let him compete to be the third point guard, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Raptors have Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet at the point, there are not a lot of minutes to be had there. However, both men are in the final year of their contracts. Plus, he brings some pregame dancing that every team needs.

The Raptors now have 16 potential NBA contracts coming into training camp, which means there will be cuts. The fact Payne has a decent guarantee his first year means he’s going to get a real look.

Payne, the No. 14 pick of the Thunder back in 2015, has struggled to find a fit in the NBA. While his skill set should fit the modern game, he doesn’t quite shoot or distribute well enough to earn a coach’s trust. He will try to change that with Nick Nurse.