NBA Season Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

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Last season: 57-25, second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The trip to the postseason was shorter than usual for the then-back-to-back defending champs, as they were unceremoniously swept out of the second round by the eventual champion Mavericks.

Head Coach: Mike Brown takes the helm in his first season with the Lakers after Phil Jackson finished 11 in Los Angeles, going to the finals seven times during that span and winning five NBA titles. Brown of course has the experience of coaching a team led by one of the league’s best players, as he was the man in Cleveland responsible for guiding LeBron James and company to the best regular season record in the league a couple of times, along with a trip to the NBA Finals.

Key Departures: Lamar Odom was traded away to the defending champion Mavericks, after the deal that would have brought Chris Paul to the Lakers was vetoed by the league office. Odom was hurt by this, and immediately requested a trade. And for some reason, the Lakers decided to immediately grant this request. Someone might have wanted to remind the Lakers’ front office that just because a player asks to be traded, you don’t have to give him away for nothing just to appease him. If that were the case, Kobe Bryant would have been gone in the summer of 2007.

Oh, and Shannon Brown signed a one-year deal in Phoenix as a free agent.

Key Additions: Does a Traded Player Exception count? Because that’s what the Lakers received from Dallas in return for the league’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year. If you’re looking for actual bodies that L.A. added, then we have Josh McRoberts and Jason Kapono — both of whom are substantially worse than the departed players whose minutes they’ll likely be taking.

Best case scenario: The Lakers were not a team that was completely broken, despite their shortcomings in the playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks. L.A. was gassed after three straight trips to the Finals, and mentally, believing that somehow once the playoffs began that they would magically solve all of the problems that were evident during the regular season wasn’t a great place to be. The Lakers got what they deserved against Dallas, but talent-wise, they were just fine. That’s no longer the case entering this season.

Trading Odom away for nothing more than a traded player exception — collective bargaining agreement jargon for empty salary cap space to acquire somebody else, so, essentially, thin air — is, by itself, a terrible move from the Lakers’ front office. When you add the fact that they gave Odom to the Mavericks, the very team that beat them four straight times in last year’s playoffs, well, on paper, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Now, if that was step one to clearing some cap space to help the Lakers acquire Dwight Howard, then fine. But as of right now, Howard is off the trading block, and the Magic seem content to start the season with him on their roster. At some point, the Magic will likely look to trade Howard, in order to get something in return instead of the nothing they’d receive if he left at the end of the upcoming season as an unrestricted free agent. But with Howard waffling recently on the intensity of his desire to leave Orlando, it’s not a guarantee that he will be traded at all, much less to the Lakers.

Right now, with the loss of Odom and the less than inspiring roster additions that the Lakers have managed to make thus far, the best case for a successful season in Los Angeles — meaning, at minimum, a trip to the Finals — is acquiring Dwight Howard. Short of that, losing depth while helping the defending champs seems like a step or two in the wrong direction, and teams like the Thunder and Grizzlies are as strong as they were last season, if not stronger. Getting out of the West with less talent than before isn’t likely, so really, the Lakers need to pin their hopes on acquiring Howard, while still keeping either Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum on the roster.

For that to happen: The Magic will have to start slowly, and Howard will need to once again realize that the Magic have failed to provide him with the correct pieces necessary to win not one, not two … well, at least a single NBA championship. With Kobe Bryant waiting in Los Angeles — along with Gasol or Bynum, one of which would have to stay to make it worth the Lakers’ while, at least in the short term — the Lakers should be the preferred option for Howard if and when he should once again tell his current team that he won’t be back next season.

More likely the Lakers will: Begin their descent into mediocrity as Kobe Bryant plays out his final few seasons as angry and disgruntled as ever? Not just yet. But if the current roster is the one the Lakers are forced to go into battle with for the duration of this season, it’s tough to envision them doing much better than a deep trip into the Western Conference playoffs, when successful seasons for this core group of players are measured only by championships.

Prediction: 48-18, third seed in the Western Conference.

Grizzlies officially waive Dwight Howard, first step on his path to Lakers

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Lakers fans are uncomfortable with it, but the Lakers did a good job hedging their bet with a non-guaranteed contract: Dwight Howard is coming to the Lakers.

That process started on Saturday with the Grizzlies officially waiving Howard.

In theory, any team could claim Howard off waivers. In practice, no team is picking up his full $5.6 million salary.

Howard gave back $2.6 million in his buyout with the Grizzlies, which is exactly how much his veteran minimum contract with the Lakers will pay him.

Howard and JaVale McGee will have to tag team to play all the minutes at the five the Lakers need. Anthony Davis is their best center (and it’s not close, he’s arguably the best center in the NBA) but he wants to play the four most of the game, so for 30 minutes a night the Lakers need another big body at the five.

Howard has the potential to fill that role. For three seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Howard averaged 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, was a big body on defense, and played at least 71 games in averaging 30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use. The problem was Howard was never happy those years just playing that defense/set-a-pick-and-roll/rebound role. He wanted more touches and particularly in the post, which led to disruptions as he pushed for a larger role. It’s why he bounced around. Then last season he played just nine games due to more back and hamstring issues.

Howard is saying all the right things about accepting that role, and he convinced the Lakers to a degree, but that non-guaranteed contract shows the Lakers go into this eyes wide open. If Howard is up to his old antics, the Lakers can cut bait and move on.

It’s among the many things to watch in what should be an entertaining Lakers’ training camp this year.

On Mamba Day (8/24), former Lakers’ trainer Gary Vitti talks about what made Kobe great

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Kobe Bryant’s work ethic is legend.

It takes talent to become an MVP, 15-time All-NBA, 18-time All-Star, and lock future Hall of Famer. However, it was how Kobe got the most out of his talent that separated him from his peers. Long-time Lakers trainer Gary Vitti retired a couple of years ago and will soon publish an autobiography, “32 Years of Titles and Tears from the Best Seat in the House: What I Learned about Happiness, Greatness, Leadership and the Evolution of Sports Science.”

Vitti joined Hall of Fame photographer Andrew D. Bernstein this week on an episode of Legends of Sport to discuss his upcoming book, and he talked about Kobe (hat tip to CNBC).

“He was talented, but what if I told you he wasn’t the most talented guy out there? I’m telling you, and I’ve had them all, there’s nothing really special about Kobe. I mean he’s a big guy, but he’s not that big. He was quick, but he’s not that quick. He’s fast, he wasn’t that fast. He was powerful, but he wasn’t that powerful. I mean, there were other players that had more talent than he did, so what was there about him that more talented players had zero rings and he ended up with five?…

“He was tough in the sense that he took ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ out of his lexicon and he just believed that he could do it. Kobe taught me that talent is the most overrated thing in life; it’s what you do with your talent.”

Nobody in NBA history did as much with the talent they had as Kobe.

On Mamba Day, enjoy his ultimate mixtape highlights above and remember what it took for Kobe to get there.

 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: ‘I am not Russell Westbrook. I’m just going to try to be myself.’

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Thunder fans are going to love Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Clippers did not want to give him up in the Paul George trade but had no real choice — Gilgeous-Alexander was a prize get for OKC. As a rookie last season he started 73 games, averaging 10.8 points and 3.3 assists per game for a 48-win playoff team. Playing the most difficult position to learn in the NBA. Gilgeous-Alexander grew as the season wore on and has a promising future.

But he is taking over for Russell Westbrook as the point guard for the Thunder, so the comparisons are inevitable. Even though they have radically different games. Gilgeous-Alexander handled the question well when asked, as reported by Erik Horne at The Oklahoman.

Gilgeous-Alexander smiled and said he could compete with Westbrook’s fashion sense. He also deflected any notion of pressure to live up to the legacy of the 2016-17 Most Valuable Player. “He set the bar pretty high,” Gilgeous-Alexander said…

“I am not Russell Westbrook,” Gilgeous-Alexander said with no malice. “I do not have the same name, same body type, stuff like that. So, I’m just going to try to be myself and be the best me and everything else will take care of itself.

“I’m just a basketball player. Regardless of the situation, I’m going to continue to work hard and play my game. I know that eventually it will come out. I don’t worry about starting. I’m not worried about accolades or things like that. I just work hard, keep my head down and (stay) true to who I am.”

That attitude is part of why Thunder fans will love him. Gilgeous-Alexander is confident but not cocky, and he knows his game.

That game is more traditional point guard, more game manager, than the dynamic and explosive Westbrook. Gilgeous-Alexander learned for a season under a smart, player-friendly coach in Doc Rivers, who built his point guard’s confidence up as the season wore on. Rivers showed the rookie how to be a professional, how to prepare, and most of all trusted Gilgeous-Alexander — and that trust included being matched up on Stephen Curry in a playoff series. Through it all, Gilgeous-Alexander showed real promise.

Whatever is next in Oklahoma City — and there is a lot of rebuilding to do with that roster, a lot of picks to be made still — Gilgeous-Alexander can help lead it. He will be at the heart of what is next for the Thunder.

Just don’t expect him to be Westbrook. There is only one of those.

NBCsports.com’s “50 best players in 5 years” recap: Players 50-26, including LeBron, Durant

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This summer , the NBA team at NBCSports.com decided to take on a thought experiment: What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

We put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but we came up with one.

This is a quick recap of the players from the first week, with an excerpt from the write up of each player. To read more, here are the links to players 50-4645-41, 40-36, 35-31 and 30-26.

50. Cade Cunningham (Draft Class: 2021)
Cunningham is tailor-made for modern basketball. He’s 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds as a high school senior. He’s a tough, physical and athletic wing that was already considered a top 25 player in his class, but two years ago he decided to make the transition to playing the point full time. It’s worked…. He was the best player at the summer’s U19 World Cup despite playing two years above his age group. (Rob Dauster)

49. Emoni Bates (Draft Class: 2022)
He is a 6-foot-9 shooting guard from Ypsilanti, Michigan, who [as a freshman] led his high school team to the state title in 2019…. He’s already been dubbed the crown jewel of the 2022 NBA Draft. He hasn’t started his sophomore year yet and we are already saying he will be one of the 50 best basketball players on the planet when he turns 20…

He’s also the best prospect that many of the smartest people in grassroots basketball have ever seen, or have seen in a long, long time. As one former NBA player put it to me, “[those guys] are going to be good. He’s good now.”… Emoni has some killer in him. He’s uber-competitive. He’ll throw an elbow if someone is getting too physical. He’ll run his mouth after burying yet another step-back three in someone’s eye. (Rob Dauster)

48. Klay Thompson (Age in 2024: 34)
Our panel of voters may have been harsher with Thompson than almost anyone else in this five-year projection. The Golden State Warriors themselves believe and hope our ranking of Thompson is far too low — this past summer they gave him a new contract that will pay him $43.2 million the season before this ranking targets. Shooters tend to age well because that skill does not quickly fade… The fact he will miss a chunk of next season with a torn ACL impacted our voters because, long term, it could limit his non-shooting skills. (Kurt Helin)

47. Cole Anthony (Draft Class 2020)
He was the Russell Westbrook of high school and AAU basketball, a tremendous athlete and high volume lead guard that put up monster numbers…. In the modern NBA, we see a lot of point guards playing that role. Russ, John Wall and De’Aaron Fox are the guys that Anthony will look to follow in the footsteps of. But those guys are, or, in Fox’s case, project to be very soon, bonafide superstars in this league. Is Anthony talented enough to be a bonafide superstar? He certainly has the potential to be. (Rob Dauster)

46. Lonzo Ball (Age in 2024: 26)
With his defensive acumen, elite passing abilities and basketball IQ, Ball has a bright future ahead of him, especially now with Zion Williamson on the receiving end of those passes. If he can stay healthy, I truly think there’s a Jrue-Holiday-type career ahead of Ball. What better place to grow up in this league than alongside Holiday in New Orleans? At just 21 years old, there’s plenty of time for Ball to live up to lofty expectations as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Consider me bullish on Ball. (Tom Haberstroh)

45. Brandon Ingram (Age in 2024: 26)
Ingram — all skinny arms and legs, with potential he is trying to figure out — has been the poster child for the phrase “development is not linear.” There are stretches of games he looks like what the Lakers hoped to get in their No. 2 pick, a top-two scoring option for an NBA team. Then there are times you forget he is even on the court… He needs to be more consistent shooting the three, on the boards, and defensively. He’s got the potential to do all of that very well, but it just hasn’t come together for him yet. (Kurt Helin)

44. Jarrett Allen (Age in 2024: 26)
Just how good can Allen ultimately be? Very good if you ask anyone with the Nets. Former teammate Ed Davis thought Allen could become a $100 million player. Allen’s game and athleticism put his ceiling incredibly high…. Does Brooklyn believe in Allen? They just gave DeAndre Jordan a four-year, $40 million contract. While a lot of that is political (Jordan is one of Kevin Durant’s best friends), it’s a shot across the bow of Allen, who is going to have to prove he deserves to be the starter and the guy getting big minutes. (Kurt Helin)

43. Victor Oladipo (Age in 2024: 32)
Oladipo has played like a star just a season and a half. He’s missed half of last season with a quad injury that could cause him to miss a significant chunk of next season, too. There’s no guarantee he reverts to peak form, let alone remains this good at age 32. But Oladipo’s competitiveness, work ethic and tenacity are inspiring. Of the NBA’s go-to-scorer guards, none defend like him. He developed primary skills like shooting and ball-handling without losing his edge. (Dan Feldman)

42. CJ McCollum (Age in 2024: 32)
McCollum just signed a new contract with the Trail Blazers that will keep him in Portland through 2023-24. At age 27, it seems likely McCollum will continue to get better on defense… McCollum is a worker, and more importantly, has a mentality that he is a top dog. Lillard or not, McCollum will try to get the rest of the league to recognize his undeniability, and the only way to do that is to get better on D. (Dan Delgado)

41. RJ Barrett (Age in 2024: 24)
I also understand why there are people who question what RJ’s fit will be at the NBA level. There are legitimate concerns about his jumper. He’s left-hand dominant. He has not proven to be a lock-down defender. He’s ball-dominant, and he might not be good enough to play on the ball in the NBA. But after talking with people around the Duke program and that know RJ, I think that it is worth noting that he’s wired the way that Kawhi Leonard is and Kobe Bryant was. He’s uber-competitive. He has that alpha in him. And, most importantly, he is a worker. He may not end up having the potential to be a superstar in the NBA, but I do think he is the kind of person that is going to find a way to maximize every skill and physical tool he has. (Rob Dauster)

40. LeBron James (Age in 2024: 39)
He’s an unprecedented athlete with his combination of size, strength, speed and coordination. There’s so much room for his athleticism to slip and remain good enough. Not that LeBron is idly letting himself deteriorate. He invests heavily in taking care of his body. Perhaps most importantly, in recent years, LeBron has carefully selected when to exert full effort. LeBron also has the most basketball intelligence in the league. Even as his physical tools erode, here’s betting he finds ways to thrive. (Dan Feldman)

39. Marvin Bagley III (Age in 2024: 25)
With quick hops and amazing elevation, Bagley finishes above the rim so effortlessly. It’s easy to see that translating to other areas of his game – primarily defense. Bagley isn’t as overwhelmed defensively as it seemed he’d be entering the league. He has shown nice timing for blocking shots… Offensively, Bagley has also shown more skill than expected. His shooting range and ball-handling are trending in the right direction. (Dan Feldman)

38. Gary Harris (Age in 2024: 29)
At 24, Harris is a rare combination of young and established at the NBA’s most talent-scarce position. The base of his game is 3-point shooting and defense – the highly coveted skills that allow him to fit into any situation. But he also has enough all-around ability that a 3-and-D label sells him short. (Dan Feldman)

37. James Wiseman (Age in 2024: 23)
Wiseman has a chance to be really good. He stands 7-foot. He has the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow him to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. He is a capable defender with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And he is skilled enough where he has the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens. (Rob Dauster)

36. Aaron Gordon (Age in 2024: 28)
Gordon is a damn good player. Not just a phenomenal athlete, although he is that, too, but Gordon is a player. He averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds a game last season, shot a career-best 34.9 percent from three, saw his assist numbers improve again (16.6% assist percentage), has the handles to create his own shot, has the versatility to play the three or the four, and he’s a quality defender on the perimeter or in the post… The question remains: Can Gordon take the next step and be a trusted go-to scorer in the crunch time of games? (Kurt Helin)

35. Caris LeVert (Age in 2024: 28)
LeVert is a skilled wing. He can shoot, handle and pass. It’s the package, coupled with his fluidity and 6-foot-7 size, that can lead to stardom (though maybe only low-end stardom, because LeVert isn’t particularly explosive). But LeVert must fill out his still-thin frame and avoid injuries. That’d also help his defense, which isn’t as stout as his length suggests it could be. (Dan Feldman)

34. Lauri Markkanen (Age in 2024: 27)
There are stretches of games when Lauri Markkanen’s play makes this ranking look too low. For example, last February he averaged 26 points and 12.2 rebounds a game, getting buckets inside and knocking down a couple of threes a game. For a month, Markkanen looked like the future All-Star and cornerstone of the Bulls the Chicago front office believes he will be. The question is, can he reach that ceiling consistently? He’s only 22, but he has yet to come anywhere near that. (Kurt Helin)

33. Damian Lillard (Age in 2024: 34)
Lillard might not be headed for a “Most Overpaid” listicle in five years the way some have assumed. Instead, Lillard could just as easily transition into a 3-point shooting, high-arc-passing veteran who annoys opponents to no end. Hell, he’s already shown he can take a step forward on defense without relying on his athleticism this postseason. (Dane Deldago)

32. Rudy Gobert (Age in 2024: 32)
Rudy Gobert is underrated. Sure, he has won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards. But that gets him attention only at the end of the season, when people consider that award. In the midst of the action, Gobert has never even been an All-Star. By the time the playoffs start, his defense is again overlooked until the next year. Gobert is also good offensively. Though limited on that end, he knows his strengths and plays to them. He’s an excellent finisher, screener and offensive rebounder. Importantly, he doesn’t try to do too much. (Dan Feldman)

31. Stephen Curry (Age in 2024: 36)
I feel like the best shooter ever deserves a higher spot on this list. If you don’t think his superhuman ability to score from far away places won’t age well, consider the careers of Reggie Miller and Ray Allen, the only two players who have made more 3-pointers than Curry has in this league. Miller was starting playoff games at age 39. Allen was starting Finals games at age 38… Curry’s ranking suggests he’s at the tail end of his career, but he just increased his scoring average for the second consecutive season, averaging 27.3 points per game with pristine efficiency. (Tom Haberstroh)

30. Paul George (Age in 2024: 34)
George is a complete player on both ends in his prime now, but with a game that should age well so that he is still a significant contributor at age 34 in 2024. Last season he scored 28 points a game for the Thunder, shooting 38.6 percent from three, grabbing 8.2 rebounds a game, dishing out 4.1 assists per night, plus being one of the better and more physical wing defenders in the NBA. If those numbers slip some in the next half-decade, he’s still contributing a lot. It’s his play on that defensive end of the court that, while it likely will drop off some in five years, keeps him high on this list. (Kurt Helin)

29. Kevin Durant (Age in 2024: 35)
Durant is on the wrong side of 30 and has a torn Achilles. He left Golden State and his multi-star supporting cast for the Nets. Neither individual nor team success will come so easily. In the next five years, Durant has a chance to reshape his legacy. He’ll never completely shake taking the easier route to a title with the Warriors. But if he plays a leading role in a Brooklyn championship, even with Kyrie Irving also starring, that’d prove he can elevate a team to that level. (Dan Feldman)

28. D’Angelo Russell (Age in 2024: 28)
Russell earned his max averaging 21.1 points and dishing out seven assists per game while shooting 36.9 from three last season in Brooklyn. Numbers that made him an All-Star. His game is all about hesitation, starts and stops that throw defenders off, combined with fantastic court vision that lets him find the open big man rolling to the rim or the open shooter in the corner. Last season his assist percentage went up and his turnover percentage dropped… Russell also matured as a person, setting the stage for him to be a leader in Brooklyn and the kind of player other teams want in their locker room. (Kurt Helin)

27. Jaylen Brown (Age in 2024: 27)
What stood out watching Jaylen Brown when USA Basketball training camp came to Los Angles last week was that he was playing freely and aggressively. Like the Jaylen Brown of a couple of seasons ago, the one from the conference finals playoff run, not the cautious guy hesitating and looking to find his space at the start of last season. (Kurt Helin)

26. Myles Turner (Kurt) (Age in 2024: 28)
“Defensive Player of the Year is a big goal of mine, I want to obtain that by any means necessary,” Turner said. “All-Stars, obviously, that’s on everybody’s list of things to do. And just getting out of the first round of the playoffs, I’ve been in the league four years now and been to the first round every year.” (Kurt Helin)