Lakers are a perfect storm of bad, with no easy way to port

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The Lakers have been bad all season.

Frustration with the team — among players and fans — is coming to a head as the Lakers head into a seeming death spiral and it becomes more and more clear that their $100 million roster of superstars isn’t even going to make the playoffs. (It’s not impossible the Lakers still make the postseason, but it’s standing right next to impossible with his arm around it.)

There is a lot of blame to go around — injuries, lack of depth exposed by said injuries, Kobe Bryant’s shot selection, all the team’s stars, the entire team’s attitude about defense, Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni and so on. Basically everyone but Lawrence Tanter deserves a slice of blame. The worst part is it has been a perfect storm of problems — every problem seems to exacerbate the next one.

But two targets should be singled out for the biggest slices of the blame pie — Lakers management and Dwight Howard.

And if the Lakers are going to turn this around — even by next season — it will be up to those two to fix the issues.

What to do right is something they can learn by watching what the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat did right (and wrong) in the past five years since they assembled powerhouse teams. Both of them figured it out well enough to win a ring, which is far more than it looks like the Lakers will do right now.

Management issues

Lakers management — Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and the guy making the ultimate calls in Jim Buss — earned a lot of plaudits when they went out last summer and got Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to pair with Kobe and Pau Gasol forming a new super team. And deservedly so, it’s not easy to acquire that kind of talent and ownership was willing to pony up the taxes to pay for it.

But there seemed to be little thought to real team building — what kind of system the team would play, what would work best for the roster, and then being committed to it and getting role players to fit said system.

Instead the Lakers (at the request of Kobe) worked to bring in a Princeton-hybrid offense — something without play calls and the micromanaging Brown brought as coach. The idea was to make Steve Nash the point god and when he got the ball he could decide to fast break, or come up and call for some pick-and-roll action, or he could go into one of the Princeton sets.

When you have that many options at the top of the offense it’s going to take a long time for get guys on the same page and acting seamlessly. The Lakers never came close to that. Guys were clearly thinking and not reacting, combine that with the return just at the start of the season of Howard and other injuries and you kill any chance of the group jelling.  The offense was a mess. And the defense was still worse (and supposed to be Brown’s specialty).

So the Lakers fired Mike Brown.

And went 180 degrees with Mike D’Antoni — a guy who won playing Amar’e Stoudemire at the five, flooding the floor with shooters and letting Steve Nash run the show as fast as he wanted. That was absolutely nothing like the Lakers roster, even Steve Nash is older and slower. The Lakers had two big men who want the ball in the post, plus Kobe and Metta World Peace like the post, also. “Young” and “athletic” are not words used to describe the Lakers roster.

If you learned one thing from watching Mike D’Antoni operate in New York is that the players must fit the system because the system isn’t changing to fit the players. The Lakers knew that and knew they had a mismatched roster for what D’Antoni wanted to do when they hired them — fans want to blame D’Antoni for not modifying what he does but this goes back to management hiring him knowing he was a system guy. Or at least Lakers fans need to hope management knew that.

And how you fix it is two-fold — D’Antoni somehow needs to learn from what Erik Spoelstra did in Miami tweaking his system until he figured out what worked. We can question if D’Antoni is willing to do it, but he has to be unless the Lakers want to totally overhaul the roster. It took more than a season for Spoelstra to figure out his Heat roster could win best with small ball and pressure, but he did, he adjusted and they had a ring ceremony because of it (and while they have struggled at points this season it is more about focus than system).

Also, the Lakers need to move one of their two tradable assets — Gasol or Howard — to get shooters and players that fit the system. If they don’t think Howard will re-sign with them next summer they have to change their stance to consider offers. It’s all on management, they built the roster and they need to get younger and more athletic (see Earl Clark) to make it work.

Dwight Howard’s pivotal role in the pivot

Howard is clearly not 100 percent after his off-season back injury and that is slowing him — he’s not nearly as explosive and he doesn’t cover ground on defense like he did in Orlando. And with Nash at the point and the Lakers bench the team needed the old Howard to shore up their defense and make it respectable.

Instead in recent games he has looked disinterested and disengaged. Rather than learning from Kobe about the fight needed to be a title contender, Howard has gone to blaming teammates and seeming not to get why what is best for him might not be best for Gasol or Nash. Howard is a great pick-and-roll big but he complains he wants the ball in the post more despite Nash. There seems to be little consideration.

Go read Kevin Ding’s fantastic piece on Howard at the Orange County Register. Do it, we’ll wait for you. He lays it right out there. While no player is blameless for the Lakers woes, Howard and his lack of play at the defensive end is the biggest issue on the court.

Howard seems to think he’s in a competition with Kobe rather than really being willing to sacrifice for the team.

Howard needs to look at the players on the 2008 Celtics, who willingly sacrificed stats and changed their role to do what was best for the team.

Howard needs to look at Dwyane Wade and how he learned to play with LeBron James, even if that means deferring to him, to make it better for the team. Howard can be the co-leader of the Lakers with Kobe if he wants to be. But to do that he needs to give not just take.

He can’t just demand the ball more, he has to earn it. Kobe will pass if Howard steps up and demands the rock — and then does something with it. If you watched Howard’s last three games you can’t blame Kobe and Nash for not passing him the rock — he hurts the offense when he gets it and goes half-speed. He has to play fast and hard. And if you’re not doing something positive with the ball, Kobe will be more than happy to shoot it for you.

The things that got the Lakers into this mess were not simple or singular, and with that the fix is not simple. There is no magic bullet. It’s going to take a lot of guys from the front office to the floor making adjustments.

And after 41 games, its time to seriously question if they can.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.