This isn’t Kobe vs. LeBron, it’s Heat break vs. Lakers big men

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Thursday night’s showdown in South Beach is not Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James.

Not totally. Yes, they are the league’s top two scorers, but LeBron is a game time decision after being sent home sick from shoot around. He’s been fighting a cold for a few days. Either way, you can be sure Kobe is using LeBron as motivation — he uses everything, including the guy who cut his car off on the way to the arena, as motivation — but the outcome will have more to do with how the other eight players on the court step up. And which team has the will to force its style on the other.

It will be hyped as a rivalry, but the Heat and Lakers aren’t even really rivals. There are about 20 teams that think they are the Lakers rivals, and near the same number saying that about the Heat the last few years. But real rivalries are born out of playoff battles. Kobe and LeBron, the Lakers and Heat have never met with anything more than a regular season win on the line.

What Thursday night’s showdown will be is fun. And a measuring stick to a degree, but mostly it will be entertaining. Must-watch television.

There are two two key to this game — Miami’s “big men” versus the long Los Angeles front line; and the Lakers sloppy transition defense against the new up-tempo, chaos theory Heat.

Miami’s goal, even with Dwyane Wade likely sitting out again due to his sprained ankle, is to run. They use pressure defense to create turnovers and misses and then try to get out in transition with LeBron — exactly like what they did in the second half against San Antonio. Miami plays at the second fastest pace in the league (97.6 possessions a game) and has the fourth most efficient offense because of it (105.7 points per 100 possessions). (Stats via Hoopdata.)

The Lakers have been terrible in transition defense this season. If the Heat can push the tempo they can run away with this game in every sense.

How the Lakers can slow this game is in the paint — Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony are no match for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. It is why the Heat may even play Eddy Curry. If the Lakers pound the ball in the paint to their bigs, force the Heat defense to collapse and make them take the ball out of the basket, Los Angeles can get back and set up its defense. When they are set, the length of Bynum and the Lakers front line can make it hard to get to the rim and turn the Heat into half-court jump shooters. Which is how you beat them (and why a zone defense can be effective).

It really comes down to this battle of style and wills — can the Lakers pound the ball inside, can the Heat get out and run. That is what will decide this game.

Well, that and if Kobe or LeBron just go off. That can always happen.

Report: Spurs hearing out Kawhi Leonard trade offers, including from Lakers

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The Spurs shot down Kawhi Leonard trade offers before the trade deadline. They brushed off Leonard trade offers earlier this offseason.

Then, the already strained situation got even worse.

Leonard put out word he wanted to leave San Antonio, ideally for the Lakers. He met with Gregg Popovich this week in San Diego, reportedly directly telling the president-coach he wants out.

What are the Spurs doing now?

Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports:

The Lakers are in that mix.

The Spurs can try to mend their relationship with Leonard. They could even use a super-max contract – projected to be worth $219 million over five years – to aid that process. They don’t have to trade him.

But the clock is ticking toward tonight’s draft, teams using their cap space in other ways and Leonard’s 2019 free agency.

San Antonio has no choice but to get more aggressive in handling Leonard’s future. This is a small step in that direction.

Report: Nets to buy out Dwight Howard

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The Magic, Lakers, Rockets, Hawks and Hornets all grew tired of Dwight Howard.

The Nets did it in record time.

After acquiring Howard in a trade from Charlotte yesterday, Brooklyn is moving toward shedding him.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

In the trade, the Nets dumped Timofey Mozgov‘s $16.72 million salary for 2019-20. Now, they could get a reduction on Howard’s $23,819,725 expiring contract. Brooklyn is doing a great job of unloading bad money.

Next year, the Nets will have their own first-round pick for the first time in six years. Though he has declined considerably from his Hall of Fame peak, Howard can still play some. Brooklyn didn’t need him interfering with its tanking and culture.

Instead, the Nets can focus on developing Jarrett Allen and losing enough to secure the best draft position possible.

It’ll be interesting to see how much Howard surrenders and where he goes. Again, he can still play. But the league is moving away from traditional centers, and he’s high maintenance.

Report: Cavaliers not planning to trade Kevin Love, no matter what LeBron James does

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The Cavaliers spent considerable time bemoaning a Kevin Love trade last summer falling through.

Will they deal him this offseason?

The No. 8 pick and Love are Cleveland’s best assets for upgrading their roster around LeBron James. If LeBron leaves, moving Love could jumpstart a rebuild.

But apparently the Cavs are now projecting attachment to Love, either way.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

The Cavaliers are not actively shopping All-Star forward Kevin Love heading into Thursday’s NBA draft, multiple sources told ESPN on Wednesday. Furthermore, regardless of what decision LeBron James makes about his future in Cleveland, the Cavs have interest in keeping Love next season, sources said.

File this under what else are they supposed to say? Even if the Cavaliers want to trade Love, insisting they won’t maximizes his trade value, forcing other teams to offer enough to pry him away.

But I also believe this accurately reflects the Cavs’ plans.

They just seem so determined to compete if LeBron leaves, and Love is their only other star. Love proved himself worthy of being the best player on a good team with the Timberwolves. (They were playoff quality when he played. They just completely fell apart whenever he sat.) In Cleveland, Love has fluctuated in his ability to bend his game around LeBron. If LeBron leaves, that’d no longer be a problem.

But Love will turn 30 before the season. He has declined out of his athletic peak, and I’d bet against him ever nearing his Minnesota levels again. And the other Cavs stink. It’s hard to see a LeBron-less Cavaliers team, even with Love, competing for the playoffs.

If LeBron stays, keeping Love makes some sense. With his $24,119,025 salary for next season and $25,595,700 player option for the following year, he probably doesn’t hold elite trade value. He doesn’t match up well with the Warriors, but good players who do come at a major cost.

Report: Lakers call meeting to warn employees about tampering

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Magic Johnson got the Lakers fined for tampering while still holding a ceremonial title. Once he actually took over the front office, he really got to work tampering. He got warned for blinking at Paul George on national television. Then – due to general manager Rob Pelinka’s communication with George’s agent and Johnson’s previous warning – the Lakers received one of the largest fines in NBA history. Johnson himself got the Lakers fined for praising Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. The league investigated and cleared assistant coach Brian Shaw for tampering with George.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said the Lakers’ previous transgressions have put them under tighter scrutiny.

The Lakers just want this to end.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

Lakers co-owner and governor Jeanie Buss called the meeting, which was led by president of basketball operations Magic Johnson.

Sources said Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka spoke to a large group of team employees, warning them about tampering.

Other employees received written notices on the matter that referenced possible termination as punishment for anyone who does not adhere to NBA rules.

Tampering often takes much more benign forms than a president or general manager recruiting a star player before free agency. It could be an offhand comment by a coach, an overzealous ticket pitch or a speculative article on the team website.

If Johnson’s and Pelinka’s tampering increases the Lakers’ odds of landing a star, that’s just the cost of doing business. If a lower-level staffer tampers, that’s an avoidable mistake.

Really, it’s comical this meeting is even newsworthy, and that’s a product of the Lakers’ previous violations.

But, as they pursue stars, they don’t want to chance the league imposing any additional restrictions.

So, the Lakers, in some ways are right back where they started.