ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

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Last season: It was supposed to be yet another year spent contending for a championship for a storied Lakers franchise that already has 16 of them. L.A. loaded up with free agent talent in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and was on paper the team most believed would stand in the way of a second straight Miami Heat title.

Instead, it was a season full of drama and disaster. The Lakers were decimated by injuries to nearly anyone that mattered, Howard struggled to embrace head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system and playing alongside Kobe Bryant, and the team snuck into the playoffs only to be swept in the first round by the Spurs.

If all of that wasn’t bad enough, Bryant went down with a torn Achilles injury near the end of last season that will have a lingering effect on the team entering this one.

Signature highlight from last season: Bryant’s Achilles injury and subsequent free throws that helped give the Lakers a much-needed late season win to keep their playoff hopes alive was a candidate here, as was Steve Nash, literally the best teammate in the game, losing his temper Dwight Howard. But those were both bummers for Lakers fans, so instead let’s revisit some vintage Bryant heroics during one of the team’s most exciting wins of the year.

Key player changes: The loss of Dwight Howard in free agency immediately dropped the Lakers out of championship contention in the eyes of most pundits. But L.A. did a nice job of adding talented role players at below market value to support the stars still in place on the roster.

  • IN: Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, and Wesley Johnson were all signed to guaranteed contracts for the upcoming season.
  • OUT: Dwight Howard choose to sign in Houston in free agency; Earl Clark did the same with the Cavaliers, as did Antawn Jamison, now with the Clippers. Metta World Peace was waived using the amnesty provision, and was picked up by the Knicks. Other seldom-used players who are no longer Lakers: Chris Duhon, Darius Morris, Devin Ebanks.

Keys to the Lakers season:

1) The health of Kobe Bryant: Recovering from an injury as severe as a torn Achilles is no small task, even for someone with a ruthless work ethic and insanely high pain tolerance as Kobe Bryant. While his rehabilitation appears to be going well and Bryant has said that he’s ahead of schedule, the timing of his return isn’t nearly as important as the quality of his play whenever he does see the court this season for the first time.

Assuming a healthy Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, with the latter playing in a contract year as the featured big man in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, there is still legitimate star power on the Lakers roster beyond whatever Bryant brings. He puts the team over the top, however, in terms of having enough talent to do real damage — but only if he’s back playing close to the level we’ve come to expect, at least for the majority of the season.

2) Pau Gasol returning to All-Star form: Ever since coming to the Lakers via trade during the 2008 season, Gasol has been the one who largely was blamed publicly when things weren’t right with the team. He’s been the constant subject of trade rumors, and due to a variety of factors, many thought it was a long shot that he’d even be back with the Lakers this season.

Gasol appears healthy now, and after being marginalized in favor of Dwight Howard, D’Antoni has spent every opportunity praising Gasol’s abilities, and seems genuinely excited about being able to feature him in the offense. There should be a monster year on the horizon for the Spaniard, and depending on what version of Bryant we see, Gasol’s return to form could help the Lakers overachieve by most people’s standards.

On the flip side, Gasol is in the final year of his contract, and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he stumbles at all or the team doesn’t produce wins in spite of his stellar play, the Lakers could look to dump him at the trade deadline in order to make sure they get something in return for a player of his caliber. A lot will hinge on Gasol’s play this season, both in terms of the team’s fortunes, as well as what the future may hold for him personally.

3) One word — Defense: The good news for the Lakers is that Mike D’Antoni has had a full training camp to put in his offense, and the Lakers have added players like Nick Young and Jordan Farmar who should thrive in his system while having no trouble putting up big numbers.

But D’antoni teams have never been known for their lock-down defense, and the personnel in place this year looks to be woefully inadequate on that end of the floor. Nash, Young, and Chris Kaman have a history of struggling defensively, yet all are expected to play big minutes this season. Bryant has proven he can play above average defense over the years, but was dreadful there a season ago, largely by personal choice.

These Lakers don’t have quite enough firepower to outscore teams, and don’t have nearly enough defensively to shut their opponents down for extended stretches .That middle ground is likely going to be troublesome to escape, and along with the uncertainty surrounding Bryant, it’s the primary reason that most have the Lakers finishing out of the playoffs.

Why you should watch: Well, the first reason is you won’t have much of a choice — the Lakers will be on national television 29 times. Beyond that, the intrigue surrounding how Bryant returns, what Nash has left to give in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, and what ends up happening with Gasol are each reasons on their own, and combined they’ll make the Lakers as interesting as usual.

Prediction: 46-36, one more regular season win than last year’s supposed world-beater squad, and enough to secure one of the final two playoff spots in the West.

Look, there are six teams that are essentially guaranteed to make the postseason in the Western Conference, which only leaves two spots up for grabs. There are a lot of “ifs” surrounding this Lakers team, but I’m taking the optimistic approach on Kobe’s health and the overall team talent being enough to finish in seventh or eighth place when the regular season is finished.

After climbing into striking distance of first-round, Georgia Tech’s Josh Okogie staying in draft

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Georgia Tech sophomore shooting guard Josh Okogie nailed the combine. He aced his athletic testing, posting some of the best quickness numbers in the event’s history, and impressed even more with his 5-on-5 play.

Now, it’s time to capitalize.

Okogie:

Okogie appears to be a borderline first-round pick. NBA teams covet versatile wings like him.

Just 19 until September, Okogie is younger than freshmen like DeAndre Ayton, Mohamed Bamba and Michael Porter Jr. So, Okogie looks better on the aging curve than the typical sophomore.

At 6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan, he can defend three – maybe four – positions. He freelances a little too much defensively, but at least he’s active.

Okogie was probably miscast as a go-to offensive player at Georgia Tech. NBA teams won’t similarly lean on his deficient areas – court vision, ball-handling and finishing. He’ll probably be more efficient just spotting up and cutting.

The biggest variable in Okogie’s game is 3-point shooting. Will he reliably make NBA 3s? His form offers reason to believe, but not reason to be convinced.

After seeing video, Milwaukee mayor expressing concern about police conduct in arrest of Bucks guard Sterling Brown

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee’s mayor is expressing concern about police conduct in the stun-gun arrest of Bucks guard Sterling Brown in January.

Mayor Tom Barrett says he’s viewed police video of Brown’s arrest over an alleged parking violation. He did not offer details but has said he has questions about how police acted. The video might be released this week.

Police have shown the body-camera footage to some local officials, including a closed session of a Common Council committee.

Brown was arrested in a Walgreens parking lot about 2 a.m. Jan. 26. Officers had been checking on a vehicle parked across two handicap spaces. Brown was not charged.

The Bucks signed the 6-foot-6 guard from SMU last summer in a deal with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Report: Teams trying to trade for Karl-Anthony Towns amid his perceived disconnect with Timberwolves

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The Clippers took what appeared to be a stab in the dark by offering Blake Griffin to the Timberwolves for Karl-Anthony Towns before trading Griffin to the Pistons.

But maybe it wasn’t completely a stab in the dark.

Appearing on ESPN, Brian Windhorst elaborated on talk of tension between Towns and Minnesota:

Let’s just put it this way: I didn’t make this up. People in the league have been saying, “You know, maybe we should call and take a look and see what’s going on with Karl Towns.” Now, he and Tom Thibodeau did not have the greatest season together. I think that’s far to say.

They recently fired Vince Legarza, who’s his strength-and-conditioning coach or he’s actually his workout coach with the Wolves and, according to The Athletic, didn’t tell him about it. He found out when everybody else did.

I don’t think that the Wolves are looking to trade him, but teams are definitely sniffing around as if maybe there’s something here.

They’ve already taken some calls on him. This is not new. Blake Griffin, the Clippers called and offered Blake Griffin for him. They’re going to, I believe, get more calls on this, especially the way there seems to be a disconnect between Karl and the franchise.

Maybe these calling teams know the Timberwolves-Town relationship is broken beyond repair. I doubt it, mostly because I doubt the relationship is broken beyond repair.

But teams don’t need to know he and Minnesota are done with each other to propose a trade. Those teams just need to know Thibodeau’s phone number.

There’s no downside to asking the Timberwolves about Towns’ availability. The upside is landing a 22-year-old star with generational offensive talent and the tools to defend exceptionally well.

So, it’s easy to see how a minor issue could be perceived as something bigger.

Of course, this doesn’t preclude this being a major issue already.

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement allows players to receive super-max salaries in their ninth and 10th seasons only if they get it from their original team or changed teams only during their first four seasons via trade. A potential unintended consequence? Unhappy young players – like Towns? – push for trades sooner rather than ride it out longer. If Towns wants to leave the door open for a designated-veteran-player contract outside Minnesota, he must get traded in the next year.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Timberwolves will trade him. For all the reasons other teams want him, Minnesota wants to keep him. If he and Thibodeau truly reach a breaking point, I doubt ownership would side with Thibodeau. Star players usually win those battles.

The Timberwolves can offer Towns a contract extension this summer worth a projected $157 over five years. They could even include a clause that would lift Towns’ compensation by 20% (to a projected $188 million over five years) if he makes an All-NBA team next season.

That could pave over many problems, but it wouldn’t necessarily signify a complete resolution. Towns would still be trade-eligible, and the clock would still be ticking on his ability to get a designated-veteran-player deal elsewhere later. A max rookie-scale extension wouldn’t lower Towns’ trade value. Any team trying for him surely expects to give him the same extension itself.

Still, Minnesota would probably want to know Towns is content there before offering him so much money. This sets up more weird meetings before the Timberwolves offer someone a max rookie-scale extension.

Do you like when Stephen Curry swears because it’s out of character for him? Kevin Durant: ‘F— yeah’

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Stephen Curry has cultivated such a wholesome image, it became a story when he yelled “This is my f—ing house” during the Warriors’ Game 3 win over the Rockets:

His mom scolded him, but Kevin Durant liked it:

Uh oh, if Durant isn’t careful he might just come across as likable.