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.

Seven names popping up as the next coach of the New York Knicks

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David Fizdale is out. Mike Miller is in, temporarily (unless he can work miracles with this roster over 60 games).

The big question now: Who will coach the Knicks next season?

The answer to that question starts with the answer to a different question: Who is the team president of the Knicks next season? Current head honcho Steve Mills is on the hot seat. Does he hold on to his job and get to pick the new coach? If Mills is let go, whoever becomes the new POBO should be allowed to hire his own coach. (Letting Mills hire a coach then forcing that hire on a new president would be a mistake, but not outside the realm of possibility.)

Just because we don’t know who will be making the choice has not slowed the speculation about who is next. Here are seven names being bounced around the league (just know this is far from a complete list):

Mark Jackson: This is a trip down memory lane for the franchise, one that would be a hit with casual fans and certainly would be a marketing success. Jackson’s backers talk about how he built the foundation of the Warriors (and Steve Kerr long credited Jackson for making the peak Warriors a defensive team). However, he was fired in Golden State for good reasons: His offense was old school and heavy on isolation, he was challenging to work with for the front office (Jackson created an “us” vs. “them” mentality in the locker room where them included the front office), he clashed with assistant coaches and asked them to do a lot (he refused to let Mike Malone be an associate head coach), he has a history of distracting personal life dramas (do that in New York and the headlines are much bigger), and the list goes on. There were enough red flags in Golden State that he hasn’t gotten a job since, do the Knicks want to break that trend?

Jeff Van Gundy: Another blast from the past — he was the last coach to get the Knicks to the Finals — and he whet his coaching chops again coaching Team USA’s G-League squads that qualified USA Basketball for the World Cup. He has coached under James Dolan before, he knows what he is getting into. Does he want to leave that cushy ESPN job to be in Madison Square Garden again? Is he a coach for the modern game?

Jason Kidd: Notice how there are a lot of former Knicks on the top of this list? Here’s another. He is currently on the Lakers’ bench, and if the Knicks goal is to once again get a coach respected by players they think can help recruit superstars to Madison Square Garden, Kidd becomes a viable option. Giannis Antetokounmpo credits Kidd for understanding how to be a pro. The knock against him? The performance of his teams in Milwaukee and Brooklyn on the court. He was let go in those places for good reasons.

Tyrone Lue: Another coach whose name comes up for every job, and he has a ring from Cleveland with LeBron James (where he was LeBron’s hand-picked guy). He’s well respected by players around the league and, unlike his reputation among some fans, was a solid tactician. However, when LeBron left and the Cleveland job became a development project, Lue was gone fast — and the Knicks are a development job. Lue is currently sitting next to Doc Rivers on the Clippers’ bench.

Darvin Ham: If the Mills/Perry front office remains, this becomes a name to watch closely. Ham has a championship ring from his playing days (the 2004 Pistons), Perry worked for the Pistons’ front office during that time, and the two have remained friends. Ham has been working at the right hand of Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee (insert your “we can lure Antetokounmpo” conspiracy theory here) and has been one of the assistant coaches at the front of the line for a head coaching job, having been inconsideration in Cleveland, Minnesota, and Atlanta.

Ettore Messina: If James Dolan can lure Masai Ujiri away from Toronto (a very big if), then Messina becomes more likely. After years on the bench next to Gregg Popovich learning the NBA game, Messina decided to head back to Europe and is the head coach of Olimpia Milano in Italy. Messina is very well respected in coaching circles and it wouldn’t be a shock if he got a call.

Becky Hammon: Her name comes up a lot for this job around the league. The six-year Spurs assistant (and the woman most likely right now to get a head coaching job in the NBA) has New York ties as she played for the Liberty in the WNBA. San Antonio has been a factory of head coaches and Hammon has had several interviews with other teams. She would be the first woman to coach in the NBA, and that headline and marketing potential may appeal to the Knicks (if they decide to go with a first-time coach).

Other names to watch: Kenny Smith, Craig Robinson, Sam Mitchell, Mike Brown, and Nate Tibbetts.

Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling becomes first mother to officiate an NBA game

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CHICAGO (AP) — Referee Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling made NBA history Friday night when she became the first mother to officiate a league game.

Holtkamp-Sterling worked the Bulls-Warriors game in Chicago.

The game was the first for Holtkamp-Sterling since she gave birth to daughter Stoan this year. She missed last season with a knee injury that required surgery and the start of her 2019-20 season was delayed by abdominal surgery.

Her husband, Jonathan Sterling, worked the Los Angeles Clippers-Bucks game in Milwaukee on Friday night. The couple met at a college basketball referees event before they became the first married couple to officiate in league history.

“That’s amazing. They probably have a good nanny, I’m guessing. That cannot be easy raising a child with two NBA refs as parents. It’s a pretty incredible story. I’m happy for Lauren that she’s back on the court,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

In 2014, Holtkamp-Sterling became the third full-time female referee in league history.

 

Pelicans to ease Zion Williamson into NBA action, no backs-to-backs at first

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If you didn’t see this coming, you probably donated money to help out that poor Nigerian prince, too.

Zion Williamson is six weeks out from his knee surgery and has yet to start on-court work towards his return, signaling he likely will not make the original 6-8 week timeframe to get back on the court. Williamson is putting in the work and improving, but the fact the Pelicans were going to be “overly cautious” — to use coach Alvin Gentry’s words — with Williamson should not be a surprise, this is the franchise that let him play just one half of one game at Summer League.

Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin went on the Pelicans in-game broadcast recently to talk about the return of Williamson and the team. There he said Williamson is progressing and added the obvious — that there will be some load management of Williamson upon his return. As there should be.

“Yes, he very likely will not be asked to take the pounding of back-to-backs initially,” Griffin said on the team’s television broadcast. “There will be a sort of ramp-up for him to getting back to where you would call him full strength, but he’s certainly going to be playing, and we’re trying to win basketball games. And quite frankly, we’ve done a horrible job of that.”

The Pelicans are 6-16 with a bottom-five defense holding them back this season.

“Where we may be failing in terms of the short term, I’m very confident that we’re succeeding over the breadth of what we’re trying to do, which is build a sustainable winner,” Griffin said. “And we’re well on our way to that, despite the current record.”

Nobody should have expected instant success with this Pelicans roster, despite having Jrue Holiday, and the additions of J.J. Redick and Brandon Ingram. This was going to take time, even if Williamson had remained healthy. Projections of this as a playoff team were wildly optimistic to begin with.

It’s going to take time with Williamson, too. He should not be rushed, he is a physically unique player and must be treated as such.

Griffin is spot on — rebuilding this franchise is a long process and the Pelicans cannot skip steps. Do that and you’re the Knicks. New Orleans has stumbled out of the gate, but what will they look like at the end of the season and if the team has taken steps forward matters a lot more than what they look like now.

Ease your franchise player back into the fold, don’t force things, and the Pelicans will be just fine.

 

Knicks’ president Steve Mills reportedly on hot seat, too

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David Fizdale is out as coach of the New York Knicks.

He also was just a part of the problem with the Knicks. Fizdale did a poor job as chef trying to cook up a decent meal, but he was also given a list of ingredients — the roster built by the front office — that would make a “Chopped” contestant wince.

It looks like the people responsible for putting that roster together — specifically the long-entrenched Steve Mills, who is currently the team president — are in trouble, too. Mills is on the hot seat, too, according to Frank Isola of The Athletic.

“[The Knicks 18 losses this season] go on Fizdale’s permanent record but the failed Fizdale experiment belongs to Steve Mills, whose days as a Teflon executive under Dolan are about to end.

Mills hired Fizdale over Mike Budenholzer, and [Phil] Jackson and without even considering [Jeff] Van Gundy. Mills looked at Fizdale as the hip young coach with connections to today’s young stars. The Knicks were all in on the free-agent class of 2019 and Fizdale was going to be the guy to get their foot in the door.

We all know how that went — the Knicks didn’t even get a meeting.

These last two seasons fall directly on Mills, who, according to sources, will either be reassigned or simply removed from the building. His expiration date is long overdue. The Athletic reported last month that Dolan will try again to pry Raptors President Masai Ujiri from Toronto. If that doesn’t work, maybe NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will point Dolan toward R.C. Buford, Sam Presti, Neil Olshey and Daryl Morey. The Knicks are in the early stages of another massive overhaul that will only work if Dolan gives his next executive savior full autonomy.

What happens to Mills is a bellwether to watch.

Not simply is he removed as team president (and before he can make trades to try to save his job at the deadline), but is he re-assigned to a new position with the Knicks — so owner James Dolan keeps his man in the building — or is he shown the door? It matters. A lot. As Isola notes, when Phil Jackson was hired he was told he would have full autonomy over the front office, but he wasn’t allowed to remove Mills or other entrenched figures (and when Jackson was let go Mills was promoted to his spot). Sources told me that other people considered for team president have asked for the power to clean out the front office and bring in their own guys, only to have that shot down.

This is the real test for Dolan. If he going to spend the money to hire Ugiri or some other big name, will he give that person the complete autonomy to overhaul basketball operations, like New Orleans did last summer with David Griffin? Then, is Dolan willing to be patient enough to wait years for it to all come together? The Knicks do not need another quick fix, another shortcut to getting back in the playoffs. They need to build a culture, a foundation that can succeed for years. That takes time. And the right guy steering the ship.

We’ll see if Dolan makes that step, or if the Knicks continue business as usual.