NBA season preview: L.A. Lakers

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Last Season: Failure. For a team that measures success in terms of championships, especially when it has enough talent on paper to compete at that level, 2012 just wasn’t good enough.

The Lakers struggled with depth and exited the playoffs in the second round for the second straight year, this time to a younger, more athletic, and more explosive Oklahoma City Thunder squad. This came after going a longer-than-planned seven games in the first round against a talented, yet inexperienced Nuggets team that shouldn’t have been able to push L.A. that far.

Key Departures: There were departures, though not many close observers of this Lakers team would choose the word “key” to describe them. Ramon Sessions departed for a bigger role in Charlotte, Matt Barnes switched to the less glamorous locker room down the Staples Center hallway, Josh McRoberts is now in Orlando, and Troy Murphy is just gone.

The Lakers did, of course, lose their All-Star center from a season ago in Andrew Bynum, but they acquired a replacement whom they hope will be one of the keys to returning to championship relevance.

Key Additions: Here’s where things start to get interesting. L.A. helped end our long national Dwightmare by trading for one of the game’s top-five players in Dwight Howard, giving up Bynum in the process. Howard for Bynum on its own is an improvement on paper, but not one large enough to tilt the championship odds immediately in the Lakers’ favor. The acquisition of Steve Nash, however — a two-time MVP, a master conductor of the offense and one of the game’s best shooters — might have done exactly that.

Antawn Jamison was added for some scoring assistance off the bench, and backup two-guard Jodie Meeks should provide some productivity when Kobe Bryant is getting some rest.

Three keys to the Lakers season:

1) Kobe thriving without the ball in his hands: Nash is one of the best point guards in the game, but to do what he does best, he’ll need the ball to open possessions. With Howard and Pau Gasol on the floor at the same time, there should be a number of successful offensive possessions where Bryant doesn’t even see the basketball. Obviously, this will be a major adjustment. Will Bryant choose to adapt to the new offense — one that, much like the Triangle, features motion and multiple options at every turn — or will he resist and revert to old habits of forcing isolation situations with the shot clock winding down, while his teammates stand around and watch? There’s a time for that, certainly, but with all of the weapons on this year’s roster, those situations should be the exception to the rule, rather than the rule itself.

2) Will the bench be enough? A starting five featuring Bryant, Howard, Nash, Gasol, and Metta World Peace should provide plenty of punch on both sides of the ball to win on most nights. But regular season achievements are not why this core was assembled, nor will finishing the regular season with the league’s best record mean anything if the starters are gassed for the playoffs. Bryant and Nash need to save themselves somewhat for the postseason, and limiting their minutes will only be possible if the bench doesn’t blow huge leads which force the team’s veteran stars to sub back in early in the fourth quarters of games which should have already been decided.

3) The correct utilization of Pau Gasol: From a numbers standpoint, Gasol appeared to be every bit as effective as he’d been in his seasons in L.A. that resulted in championships. But to those who watched the majority of the team’s contests, Gasol seemed uncomfortable, under-utilized, and out of place in head coach Mike Brown’s attempt at an offense.

The Lakers need to find a way to maximize Gasol’s talents, and the new Princeton offense that the team is implementing this season should go a long way in doing so. Gasol has great court awareness and is able to make the smart pass, but is also a deft scorer — both on the low block, and from mid-range distance on the perimeter. The team needs to recognize this, and perhaps watch some film of the gold medal game of this past summer’s Olympics to truly see what a force Gasol can be when given the right opportunities.

What Lakers fans should fear: Two words: Mike Brown. L.A.’s head coach used the lockout-shortened season as a constant excuse last year, lamenting the lack of practice time available for him to get his new systems installed. Well, no such excuse will be available this season, as Brown has had all summer and a full training camp to design and implement sets which will maximize his team’s talents.

The team added former NBA head coaches in Eddie Jordan and Bernie Bickerstaff to assist Brown, who has always been described as a defense-first coach. If the defense is top-five in the league, that’s great. But last year’s Lakers were middle-of-the-pack defensively, and the offense never gained the necessary cohesion to contend deep into the postseason. With all of the talent assembled for the 2012-13 run, the blame will undoubtedly fall on Brown’s shoulders if he’s unable to bring this group to the level of champions.

Prediction: Dwight Howard is an upgrade over Andrew Bynum, but the basketball IQ and shooting prowess of Steve Nash is what pushes this team over the top. Anyone predicting anything other than a trip to the Finals for this stacked Lakers squad is being delusional at worst, or contrarian at best. The Thunder return essentially all of their important pieces, and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be waiting in the East. But the amount of talent in the Lakers’ starting lineup is too much to dismiss, and they should ultimately take home the title if things go anywhere near as planned.

Report: Minnesota tried to talk Jimmy Butler for Bradley Beal trade with Washington, was turned away

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The Washington Wizards have been an absolute train wreck this season, a team where the players’ clearly do not like each other.

The Minnesota Timberwolves started the season as a train wreck, with Jimmy Butler doing his best to burn the franchise down in an effort to get traded.

That led to Minnesota reaching out to Washington with a “want to swap problems” proposal, which was shot down by Washington, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times in his latest newsletter.

Word is the Wolves did try to engage Washington — another team falling well short of expectations — in trade talks for the sharpshooting guard Bradley Beal.

But the Wizards have kept Beal off limits amid their 4-9 start. They would naturally prefer to trade the struggling Otto Porter, or perhaps even John Wall, but both possess hard-to-move contracts.

This follows the buzz around the league — Washington is open to a change, but teams are calling about Bradley Beal but the Wizards know he’s their best player and are not interested in moving him.

John Wall is almost impossible to trade (read ESPN’s Zach Lowe’s primer for details) because his designated veteran max extension kicks in NEXT season, and if he is traded before then there is a 15 percent trade kicker. Otto Porter has been a pretty average player on a max contract, the kind of deal every team is trying to avoid.

Minnesota made it’s move, trading Butler to Philadelphia. The Timberwolves didn’t get better talent-wise with the trade, but they did start to restructure the team around Karl-Anthony Towns (as it should have been for a while now). They made a move, even if it started with a step back.

Washington may be stuck with this roster until at least next summer. Just add it to the list of dysfunctional things in our nation’s capital.

Report: Sixers, in need of shooting, interested in Kyle Korver trade

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Trading for Jimmy Butler was the right move for Philadelphia, an all-in kind of play that ends the slow-play “process” and pushes championship dreams to the forefront.

It’s also risky — Butler has some Thibodeau-miles on his body, making the need to win sooner rather than later more urgent. It also comes with the problem that while the core three are elite, this team doesn’t have the depth and shooting to compete with Boston or Toronto (or maybe Milwaukee) right now, especially after having to trade Robert Covington and Dario Saric to get Butler.

Everyone around the league expects Philadelphia GM Elton Brand to be aggressive from here on out, looking for trades that bring in veterans who can help right now. One target: Cleveland’s Kyle Korver, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

The desperate-for-shooters Sixers remain highly interested in acquiring Cleveland’s Kyle Korver.
But that will be harder for Philadelphia to make happen without Jerryd Bayless‘ handy $8.6 million expiring contract to help facilitate a trade.

Korver is in the second season of a three-year, $22 million deal he signed with the Cavaliers in 2017. The Sixers instead plugged Bayless into the Butler trade to help make that salary cap math work.

There are options to get this deal done. Korver for Markelle Fultz straight up works, but that likely doesn’t work personnel wise for either side (the Sixers probably will want more for the former No. 1 pick, while the Cavs may want a pick as a sweetener to take on a “broken” player, the trade value of Fultz is an interesting question but it’s not high around the league). Korver for Mike Muscala and Zhaire Smith also works financially. Future picks also can be part of any package, which may interest Cleveland now that they figured out they’re supposed to rebuild after losing the best player of a generation.

However it gets done, what Stein reports follows the buzz around the league — expect the Sixers to be aggressive going after guys who can help them win right now, and Korver is at the top of the list. He’s been available since this summer, the Cavaliers have just been holding out for more than the market will offer.

Korver, at age 37, has not looked as sharp this season, he’s not moved as crisply and his three-point shooting percentage has dropped to 38.7 — which is still better than any of the regular three-point shooters on the Sixers right now (J.J. Redick is a better shooter overall but is hitting 34.9 percent this season so far). Korver has been in and out of the Cavaliers rotation as the franchise tries to figure out what it’s doing.

Warriors suspend Draymond Green for postgame comments in locker room

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The play itself that sparked everything was ugly.

With :06 seconds left in a tie game against the Clippers Monday night, watch Draymond Green grab the rebound and try to go the length of the court for the game-winner himself — only to fumble the ball away without a shot — while Kevin Durant, who should take that shot (or the hot Klay Thompson at that point), claps his hands and calls for the ball.

On the bench after that play got uglier with an argument between Green and Durant where Green allegedly even called KD his “b****” before Andre Iguodala and DeMarcus Cousins stepped in as peacemakers. In the locker room later the argument continued and was nasty as there has been in this era of the Warriors. It wasn’t just Durant, a lot of players questioned and called out Green’s decision, while Green defended himself angrily, and questioning KD on his free agency next summer.

All of it crossed a line, and Green has been suspended for a night and will sit against Atlanta, without pay.

From Chris Haynes at Yahoo Sports:

Green repeatedly called Durant “a bitch” after he was called out by the two-time NBA Finals MVP in the huddle for not passing him the ball, sources said. The organization is of the belief that Green cut too deep in his disagreement with Durant, sources said.

Klay Thompson, who is typically reserved, spoke up in the locker room to the surprise of his teammates about the altercation and stressed the importance of sticking together, sources said.

Durant is not making his free agency decision — he is expected to opt out of the last year of his contract before July — based on this one incident. But it seems to point to an overall tension around the team as it knows it could be the last year of this specific Warriors team.

Long term, Durant and Green will get over it — they had public arguments before then were hanging out at a baseball game together the next night. They will put it behind them.

But it’s just something to remember come next July.

Report: DeAndre Jordan has bothered Mavericks teammates with selfish play

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DeAndre Jordan bumping teammate Luka Doncic to get an otherwise-uncontested rebound could have been seen as a minor issue, overexuberance by Jordan due to determination to get every loose ball.

But to the Mavericks, it was an example of a troubling pattern with Jordan.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

He has rubbed teammates the wrong way with what they perceive as selfish play

Jordan signed a one-year contract with Dallas last summer, and it’s already hard to see him returning next season.

The Mavericks are just 5-8. They’ve been outscored by 8.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays and outscored opponents by 5.7 points per 100 possessions when he sits. He often looks disinterested. His help defense – what Dallas really needs from him – has been especially lazy.

Jordan is still big and mobile, and he can’t help but make some positive contributions as a rebounder and finisher. He just leaves so much to be desired.

Jordan’s mood with the Clippers alternated between despondent and eager. Maybe it will in Dallas, too.

But he’ll apparently have to overcome a poor reputation with his new teammates.