Kyrie Irving is back and sends Lakers to new low, new loss

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If you’re a Lakers fan you have to believe that at some point they reach rock bottom and start to bounce back. It’s just that they hadn’t reached it yet.

The Lakers offense took a vacation and their defense had no answer Kyrie Irving and the result of all that is the Lakers falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers 100-94. The Lakers have dropped four of their last five and are now 9-13 on the season (this was Cleveland’s fifth win).

While there was a lot of talk about the Lakers defense — specifically how Kyrie Irving carved them up in his first game back from injury for 28 points (on 21 shots) and 11 assists — that actually wasn’t the biggest problem for a change. It wasn’t good, but it has been worse. The Lakers held the Cavaliers to 44 percent shooting as a team and just 98.6 points per 100 possessions. While the Cavs put up 100 points they weren’t efficient.

The Lakers offense was just worse.

It comes back to a matter of identity — the Lakers offense looks nothing like a Mike D’Antoni offense. Early in the game the Lakers played without tempo and spacing. They lived in the half court in the first half and most of their offense was a direct post up — throw the ball into Dwight Howard in the post and stand at the arc and watch him work (and shoot if he kicks it out). There was almost no movement off the ball.

And the Lakers big men were not getting the job done — Howard, Jordan Hill and Metta World Peace combined to shoot 9-of-27 on the night. (Howard did end with 19 points.)

What we saw from the Lakers as a whole was not ball movement and player movement, it was flashback to 1990s isolation basketball.

Which means it all fell to Kobe Bryant and he did what he could — 42 points on 16-of-28 shooting, he continues to be efficient — but it is simply not enough.

Then there was the issue of turnovers — the Lakers finished with 18 turnovers, or 19.7 percent of their possessions. Nearly one in five times down the court, the Lakers didn’t get a shot off.

Compared to that, the Cavaliers offense looked good. Of course, the Lakers defense helped with that.

Irving was back and showing his speed and ball handling, splitting double teams and getting to the rim faster than the sad Lakers rotations could cover. He carved the Lakers up all night off the pick-and-roll or in isolation. Just before the end of the first half the Lakers sent two guys to trap full court and Irving just blew past Kobe and Darius Morris, out-running them both even though Irving was dribbling. He was more athletic than the Lakers, and he was finding guys who were open for shots.

Guys like C.J. Miles — someone shooting 28.3 percent from three coming into the game (and just 32.7 percent for his career) but when he gets to set his feet and take his time he hit 5-of-10 from beyond the arc.

That was a theme much of the night, with Cavaliers shooters getting good looks. If the Lakers do that Thursday night against the hot-shooting Knicks it will get ugly fast.

This was a close game until midway through the second quarter when the Cavaliers went on a 14-2 run and took an 11-point lead. The Lakers defensive communication and help was again poor, but this was as much an offensive dead patch for the Lakers as a defensive one. And when Kobe or another Laker tried to respond, Irving had an answer.

The Lakers were never quite out of it, they got the game down to four points in the fourth quarter, but they could never fully recover from the second quarter lapse. They also never had an answer for Irving, who the Cavs missed desperately.

Why are Lakers saving their young core? Reportedly to chase Anthony Davis.

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Anthony Davis is the target at the top of the Lakers’ wish list.

He’s also at the top of the wish list for the Boston Celtics and about 27 other teams, too. But if Davis is put on the trade block — something that is not likely until this summer, New Orleans is working to keep him — the Lakers and Celtics will be at the front of the line.

Which is why, when reports that the Lakers would not include any of their young core in a trade for Trevor Ariza came out, it fit with the Lakers’ long-term thinking. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN discussed this on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“Here’s the line [the Lakers] have to walk: they’re not going to give away picks and their top young players in some deal that makes them incrementally better this season because they have to save all those assets for Anthony Davis, a big trade this summer either pre or post free agency…

“The absolute dream scenario, people talk about (how) they can trade for Anthony Davis or sign a free agent. The dream scenario is they do both.”

The dream is to sign Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant and get Davis, and while that dream may be a long shot the only chance they have is if they still have their core players to throw in a package.

The larger point also is valid — the Lakers are not going to beat the Warriors come the playoffs this season (assuming the Warriors are healthy) and L.A. should keep its powder dry for bigger battles. And Davis will be the biggest of battles.

New Orleans wants to keep Davis, they are actively trying to be buyers at the trade deadline, not sellers. Sources have told me the Pelicans’ plan is to win as much as possible this season and show Davis they are serious, then come July 1 offer Davis a designated veteran contract extension worth $230 million (or a little more, depending upon the cap). It’s roughly $40 million more than any other team can offer guaranteed. If Davis and his agent Rich Paul — the same agent as LeBron James — turn down that contract then the Pelicans will be forced to consider a trade.

If we get to that point, then all bets are off and the Lakers are all in. Until then, the Lakers are wise just to be patient.

Despite fast start in Toronto, Kawhi Leonard reportedly still eyeing return to Los Angeles

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The Toronto Raptors are making their case to Kawhi Leonard this season — Toronto is 23-8, in first place in the East by 2.5 games, and look like a real threat to make the NBA Finals. Leonard, averaging 26.2 points and 8.2 rebounds a game, is a guy who has returned to the MVP conversation.

Still, the Raptors don’t know if he’s staying, or what he’s thinking, because Leonard doesn’t talk about it in a meaningful way.

“It’s been good so far,” Leonard told NBC Sports of the fit in Toronto. “Like I said, we’ve been winning, everyone’s playing well. Can’t complain.”

Nothing he’s done has slowed the speculation and buzz about what Leonard will do as a free agent next summer… which Leonard is working to ignore.

“I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me,” Leonard said before the Raptors faced the Clippers last week. “At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

A lot of the speculation around the league has remained that Leonard is headed back to Los Angeles next summer, most likely with the Clippers. Here is what Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“They can’t change the geography. They can’t change the weather in Toronto. Those were always be things against them in this,” said Adrian Wojnarowski. “Home and L.A. has been the focus for Kawhi Leonard through all of this.”

“Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said about the weather. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.”

Clippers president Lawrence Frank and other Clippers executives have been a fixture at Raptors games this season, doing their part to recruit him early. They are going to make a strong play for him. So will the Lakers, although I have heard from multiple sources he’s not likely to play with LeBron and in that spotlight.

Nobody knows what Leonard will do next summer, or even what he’s thinking. Leonard doesn’t speak much, and when he does it’s in cautious cliches providing little if any insight. As long as that is the case, the speculation will continue.

Why didn’t Lakers trade for Trevor Ariza? Suns owner reportedly blocked it.

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There were eight teams (that we know of) having some level of contact with Phoenix about getting in on a Trevor Ariza trade. The Lakers were one and — as with all things Lakers — were the most talked about.

But the Lakers were never going to pull off that trade because the Suns’ owner, Robert Sarver, didn’t want it to happen, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Sarver — a very hands-on owner when it comes to basketball decisions — is probably still stung by buying out Tyson Chandler and watching him go to the Lakers and dramatically helping their defense (the Lakers are allowing less than a point per possession when Chandler is on the court). And certainly spiting the Lakers will play well with the Suns’ fan base.

However, the best franchises put aside petty thinking and do what’s best for them. If the Lakers had made the best offer (and we don’t know if it was) then take it. If it makes the Lakers better this season, or even the next few seasons, so what? If you’re the Suns, you’re in a rebuilding process and should be focused on the long term.

That said, the Laker trade was always going to be complicated and hard to pull off, LeBron James wasn’t going to be able to call up Suns GM James Jones and make this one happen. The Lakers wanted to land Ariza but also wanted to send out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and KCP doesn’t fit with what the Suns wanted (a point guard and young players or draft assets). That means a third team was going to have to get involved, maybe Philadelphia, and possibly even a fourth. The Lakers were not going to trade any of their four core young players, making this trade even harder.

What the Suns got in the trade with Washington was what they wanted: A point guard (Austin Rivers, who is not all that good, as evidenced by his 7.1 PER this season, but is better than anyone the Suns have) and a young wing in Kelly Oubre who fits on the timeline of Devin Booker and the other young Suns. Phoenix did reasonably well in this trade.

Could they have done better? Doesn’t matter, if the owner is shooting down an idea then it’s dead. That’s his prerogative.

Kings’ rookie Marvin Bagley III out 10-14 days with left knee bone bruise

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The No. 2 pick in last June’s draft, Marvin Bagley III is having a solid season. He’s averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game coming off the bench. He’s got a good 59.2 true shooting percentage and the 6’11” big man gets most of his buckets at the rim or at least in the paint although he can hit threes when he steps out there (taking one a game but hitting 35.7 percent). He’s lost on defense, as most rookies are, but there is some potential there.

The Kings are going to have to get by without him for the next 10 to 14 days due to a bone bruise in his left knee, the team announced Friday night.

The injury happened in the second quarter of Friday night’s Sacramento loss to Golden State, when Bagley was battling for a rebound and landed awkwardly. He got a bucket out of it because he was “cherry-picking” after not being able to run back down the court, but he waved to the coaches and asked out after scoring. Bagley left the game, had to be helped to the locker room and did not return.

With Bagley out expect to see a lot more Justin Jackson. Harry Giles III has been out of the rotation of late but he could potentially get a little run, too.