Baseline to Baseline recaps: The Lakers defense sucks, too

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Our nightly recap of every gamegaround the NBA. It’s what you missed while buying dive bar T-shirts….

Trail Blazers 116, Lakers 106: In the season opener, Dallas scored at a 108.7 points per 100 possessions pace on the Lakers (for comparison, only five teams in the NBA averaged giving up more points per 100 last season). Then Wednesday night the Lakers defense was worse — Portland shot 50 percent overall, 44 percent from three and threw up 116 points on Los Angeles.

For all the moaning about the Lakers Princeton offense — and there are things to moan about if you want —  it is their defense that has cost them two nights in a row. They can’t get stops. Their pick-and-roll defense is inconsistent and seems disinterested. And that end of the floor is supposed to be Mike Brown’s calling card. If he can’t get them to start defending his seat is going to get very, very hot.

The Blazers had a good night. Rookie Damian Lillard took advantage of what passes for Lakers defense and racked up 25 points and 11 assists in his first game — the only two other players ever to do 20 and 10 in their debut are Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas. How’s that for good company? Every Portland starter had at least 13 points. We could go on and on. This was a quality win for them.

The Lakers, they have a lot of talent but they have a lot of work to do. A lot.

Also, Steve Nash left the floor with a bruised leg, only to return but not look quite right. He says he wants to play Friday night against the Clippers, we shall see.

Sixers 84, Nuggets 75: Andre Iguodala’s homecoming game really turned out to be all about Spencer Hawes. And his mullet. And the Philly defense. We break it all down right here.

Rockets 105, Pistons 96: There was more to this game than just James Harden going off like an alpha dog for 37 points and 12 assists (although that was fun to watch). The Pistons were up by 11early in the fourth quarter and when the Rockets cranked up the pressure and outscored Detroit 33-13 down the stretch. That late run started when Jeremy Lin came on the court and all night the Rockets just looked better when he was playing. Quality win for them. Good start to the Harden area in Houston, tough loss for Detroit. Not the kind of loss playoff teams have.

Clippers 101, Grizzlies 92: If you’re going to play the Clippers, you better have packed your transition defense and brought it to the arena. Memphis left theirs back at the hotel, and it showed. See the video below. But that was just part of the problem. Chris Paul owned Mike Conley. Another issue was just depth, illustrated by the fact Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol shot 56 percent (scoring 45 combined) for Memphis, the rest of the team shot 27 percent. Meanwhile new Clipper Jamal Crawford dropped 29. Rudy Gay had 25 and while he left the floor with an injury he returned and is expected to play in the future.

Pacers 90, Raptors 88: Toronto seemed to have the upset win in the bag, up 10 in the fourth quarter after having led most of the second half. But David West had 14 of his 25 in the fourth quarter, sparking a comeback against a Raptors then George Hill dropped the sweet game-winning dagger. It was the kind of win the Pacers need without Danny Granger in the lineup, one where they found some offense without him. The Raptors got some good stretches from Jonas Valanciunas (12 points and 10 rebounds) and Kyle Lowry added 21, but the Raptors as a team shot just 36.3 percent, and that won’t get it done.

Spurs 99, Hornets 95: A lot of people compare Anthony Davis and Tim Duncan, but the old dog had a few tricks in scoring 24 points including 9 in the fourth quarter to make sure the Spurs won their opener. Davis and the Hornets looked good in the first half against a lazy Spurs defense and led by 7 at the break, but you knew that someone would spark the Spurs. That guy turned out to be Kawhi Leonard, who had 11 of his 19 in the third quarter to spark an 18-3 run that put the Spurs in the game, and you knew they would close it out. Davis led the Hornets with 21.

Warriors 87, Suns 85: (From our own Brett Pollakoff) The Warriors showed a grit not present in previous years during their win over the Suns. They blew all of a 17-point first-half lead, thanks largely to dismal shooting performances from David Lee (2-of16) and Stephen Curry (2-of-14). They were down by eight with under nine minutes to play in the game. But they dug in, and began to get stops. And they got the bench to pick them up when it mattered most.

Mark Jackson couldn’t have been happier with the end result, and pointed out the little things guys did afterward to stay in it and secure the win.

Andrew Bogut was in the starting lineup, and looked sharp in limited action. Jackson played him under 19 minutes, but Bogut performed with eight points and six rebounds on 4-of-6 shooting. Bogut said he felt great afterward, and would be lobbying trainers to get his minutes limit increased.

The Suns showed some grit of their own, coming back from that big early deficit where the bench unit couldn’t find any rhythm offensively. The defense really picked up in the second half, when Phoenix recorded eight of its 12 blocked shots. Michael Beasley wasn’t effective (just 2-of-9 shooting for 8 points), so P.J. Tucker finished the game with the rest of the starters thanks to the energy he brought to the lineup off the bench.

Jared Dudley had a wide open look at a three from the top of the arc that would have tied it with 34 seconds left, but he couldn’t get it to fall, and the Warriors get a nice road win to kick off the season.

Bulls 93, Kings 87: Joakim Noah — 23 points and 10 rebounds — outplayed DeMarcus Cousins and that keyed the Bulls win because it’s about getting points from somewhere for Chicago. The Bulls defense is still the Bulls defense and the Kings shot just 40.5 percent and added 19 turnovers (9 in the first quarter). That defense is going to win them a lot of hard fought, ugly games like this. On the bright side Kings fans, Tyreke Evans had 21 points and looked strong.

Jazz 113, Mavericks 94: Dallas played hard on the back-to-back but the Williams — Mo and Marvin — proved to be too much. Each Williams had 21 points and a 18-3 run in the third those two sparked won Utah the game. The Jazz owned the boards and combined that with 20 Dallas turnovers and the game didn’t feel in doubt.

Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta calls luxury tax ‘horrible hindrance’

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No matter what Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta said, the luxury tax clearly loomed over Houston’s entire offseason. It’s the biggest reason the Rockets fell back in their pursuit of the Warriors.

So, how does Fertitta explain his view on the luxury tax now?

Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

Fertitta:

It’s a horrible hindrance.

And if any of y’all ever want to really understand it, go do the math on it. I mean, it’s just brutal. You can take 5 million, and all of a sudden you look up, and it costs you 20 million.

And at some point, you have to be smart, and you cannot get into the repeater tax, which happens if you’ve been in the luxury tax three years in a row. And that’s something to really look at. And at some point, you have to do some things so you never go in the repeater tax. You’re just dead in the water, and it can ruin your franchise for years. So, it’s something you have to be cognizant of.

At the same time, a team is built is on superstars. If you have your top four or five players, you can always see other players move in and out.

Because it is a chess game playing with the luxury tax. That’s why there’s only three or teams in it.

This year, to be able to make sure that we hopefully get back to the Western Conference finals, we were going to have to be in it around many millions of dollars. And I am here to win championships, and I’m not going to let 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 million dollars make a difference. Because if you do win the championship, that’s easy money back.

Now, if we’re in the luxury tax every year and we’re barely getting into the playoffs and a first-round game is a struggle, then I’m going to go find me a new general manger.

Let’s be clear: Fertitta will spend a significant amount on the Rockets this season. They’re over the luxury-tax line and will very likely remain there once the tax is assessed on the final day of the regular season. Fertitta greenlit one of the league’s largest payrolls.

But his arguments about the repeater rate are lacking.

Teams pay the repeater rate when paying the tax for at least the fourth time five seasons. It doesn’t matter how far over the tax they were in those prior seasons. So, while Houston – which has a completely clean repeater clock – wants to avoid paying the repeater rate down the road, incremental savings this season won’t matter for that. Unless the Rockets avoid the tax completely, which is highly unlikely, this season will count as a tax-paying season.

Houston’s key losses – Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute – left for one-year contracts elsewhere. Keeping them would have been expensive this year, but they would have triggered no additional costs later.

Again, re-signing those forwards would have pushed the Rockets’ payroll extremely high. It might be reasonable for Fertitta to place his spending limits where he did. But it should have nothing to do with the repeater tax.

It’s OK if Fertitta doesn’t know the exact ins and outs of the luxury tax. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey does and handles it. But the degree to which Fertitta is willing to pay the tax is so important to Houston’s title chances, it’s worth assessing everything he says about it.

“Horrible hindrance” and “just brutal” speak loudly.

Kawhi Leonard lays out roadmap for Raptors keeping him

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Kawhi Leonard laughed at his own answer to a reporter questioning how Leonard would describe himself to a Toronto market that doesn’t know him. “It’s just more questions you have to ask me in order for me to tell you about myself. I just can’t give you a whole spiel. I don’t even know where you’re sitting at.” Leonard talked about his excitement for getting traded to the Raptors, a “great organization” in a “great city.” He smiled big while posing for pictures.

Most importantly, he described what it’d take for Toronto to re-sign him next summer.

“By winning games,” Leonard said, “this is how you get star-caliber players to want to come here and play.”

The Raptors can do that.

They’ve won at least 48 games the last five years, peaking with 59 wins last season. Leonard, Kyle Lowry and a deep supporting cast should rank near the top of the Eastern Conference again.

But will Toronto win enough – especially in the playoffs, where disappointing results have become the norm – to get Leonard to sign on the dotted line?

For now, Leonard wants to focus on the present, including his current thoughts on Toronto: “I want to play here.” That means not meaningfully reflecting publicly on his time with the Spurs other than to say he has no regrets. It means not addressing Los Angeles rumors.

“If you’re looking in the future, you’re going to trip over the present,” Leonard said.

The present looks bright for the Raptors. Kyle Lowry re-signed last summer. DeMar DeRozan made clear how badly he wanted to stay. Leonard is in Toronto now.

At one point during today’s (delayed) introductory press conference, Raptors president Masai Ujiri interjected without being asked a question.

“Guys, the narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone,” Ujiri said, his voice rising far louder than the low-talking Leonard’s had all morning. “I think that’s old. Believe in this city. Believe in yourselves.”

And, at this point, believe Leonard when he said winning is the key to re-signing him. Maybe he’ll still leave, but winning gives Toronto the best chance to keep him.

“I came here with an open mind,” Leonard said. “I want to do great things.”

Raptors right to swing for fences with Kawhi Leonard

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Raptors are one step closer.

To seriously contending for a championship? To actually rebuilding?

We’ll see.

But Toronto is racing toward a resolution, one way or another.

Last offseason, the Raptors positioned themselves for a breaking point in the summer of 2020. They gave Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka three-year contracts, matching the timeline of Jonas Valanciunas‘ contract ending. The hitch was DeMar DeRozan‘s huge deal, which ran through 2021. If it reached the point Toronto president Masai Ujiri wanted to retool in 2020, perhaps DeRozan wouldn’t be as appealing on the trade market. Keeping DeRozan – central to the Raptors’ identity – could have been even more limiting.

So, Ujiri got ahead of that potential problem by trading DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a top-20-protected first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

The move was extremely risky. Leonard missed nearly all of last due to injury. He can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and he’s reportedly eying Los Angeles.

But Leonard is just 27 and only one season removed from being an MVP candidate. He could lift Toronto to a championship this season. He could re-sign. The upside is so high.

The downside is starting a rebuild that probably would have come anyway.

First, the Raptors will give it their best shot this season.

They re-signed Fred VanVleet – the driving force behind their excellent bench – to a two years, $18 million contract. That likely assures aying the luxury tax for the first time since 2004, though there’s still time to shed salary before the tax is assessed on the final day of the regular season.

Greg Monroe was a very nice addition at the minimum. If all goes well, he might even allow Toronto to dump Valanciunas’ salary.

And don’t forget about Green, who’s a solid contributor on the wing, not just a throw-in with Leonard.

Firing Dwane Casey to hire first-time NBA head coach Nick Nurse was another risk. I wonder whether Ujiri would have done it if he knew he’d acquire Leonard later in the summer.

The Raptors could be excellent this season and beyond. They could be excellent this season then fall off dramatically. They could be far worse this season and stay down a while.

But after years of strong regular seasons and playoff disappointments, it was time to change the status quo.

Fortune favors the bold.

 

 

Offseason grade: A

Heat camp arrives, and Goran Dragic says he’s more than ready

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MIAMI (AP) — This time last year, Miami’s Goran Dragic was already tired and the season was just getting started.

It’s very different now.

When the Heat hold their first practice of the season Tuesday, Dragic expects to be as rested and ready as he’s been for any training camp in years. The point guard who went to his first All-Star Game last season wore down as the year went along, in part because of the grind he put himself through last summer while leading his native Slovenia to the European championship.

This summer, he played less – and is hoping that pays off this season.

“I feel amazing. I feel great,” Dragic said. “I think one of the smartest moves I made was retiring from the national team, because I feel energized and pumped for this season. I always kind of hit a wall toward the end of a season, but I feel like this season is going to be a totally different story.”

At 32, Dragic is Miami’s third-oldest player – among those in the Heat locker room, only Udonis Haslem (38) and the entering-his-final-season Dwyane Wade (36) have seen more birthdays. But Dragic is still a starter, still a very intregal part of everything Miami envisions for this season, and is coming off a year where he averaged 17.3 points.

“The band is still together,” Dragic said. “I’m very happy that I’ll be part of this last dance with Dwyane.”

The biggest malady Dragic was dealing with at the end of last season was tendinitis in his right knee, something that bothered him for several weeks. He still led Miami in scoring during its five-game playoff appearance against Philadelphia, averaging 18.6 points.

He wasn’t the only Heat starter ailing when last season ended. Josh Richardson was playing through a bad shoulder, Hassan Whiteside had knee problems, James Johnson had a sports hernia and Tyler Johnson‘s thumb needed surgery. The Heat – who are one of the many teams that have been talking to Minnesota about a trade for Jimmy Butler – are hoping some health luck comes their way this season.

“I think we’re going to be good,” Dragic said.

If nothing else, he’s not coming into this season as harried as he was last fall. Dragic has been back in Miami for about a month, after spending most of his offseason in Slovenia. A year ago, the European championships meant Dragic was still playing right up until the start of Heat camp.

It wasn’t a popular decision in Slovenia for Dragic to stop playing for the national team, which didn’t qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup of Basketball in China and now faces an uphill climb if it’s going to reach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“But it was the right decision for me,” Dragic said.

The Heat sat out this past June’s NBA Draft in part because of the deal they made in 2015 to bring Dragic to Miami. The package sent to Phoenix included two first-round selections, the first of which was used this year at the No. 16 overall spot. The other will be used in 2021.

The price was steep, and the Heat aren’t complaining.

“I’d much rather have Goran Dragic than those two picks,” Heat President Pat Riley said.

Dragic is hoping to give Riley even more bang for his buck this season.

The All-Star nod – even though it came as an injury replacement – was particularly meaningful for Dragic, and he felt that last season was one of his better seasons anyway.

His goal for this season is simple: Be even better.

“I want to be at a high level for as long as possible,” Dragic said. “If you come into a season without goals, you’re just going through practice and it doesn’t mean anything to you. But if you set goals, you’re pushing yourself. And for me personally, my goal is to have a better season than I did last year. I don’t want to drop a little bit at the end this season. I want to be energized, fresher, more consistent the whole way this time.”