Wizards keep playoff goal intact by trading injured Okafor for a healthy Gortat

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WASHINGTON — Sometimes trades instinctively bring out the head scratcher in all of us. The Wizards acquiring center Marcin Gortat isn’t one of those times.

Washington hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2008. Unlike teams that bailed on the upcoming season to ensure a lottery finish, the Wizards have shaped their John Wall-led roster with the goal of a postseason return.

Emeka Okafor’s herniated disk in his neck threatened to derail those plans.

Fearing the defensive presence might return later than sooner, the playoff-pushing organization addressed the matter sooner than later.

Following Saturday’s practice, management, coaches and players discussed the necessary move, which included not just a swap of expiring contracts, but the Wizards shipping a protected 2014 first round pick.

Wizards team President Ernie Grunfeld: “Obviously if Emeka didn’t have the [injury], probably wouldn’t have been as imperative for us to get another big man in there. We don’t know what his status will be. Obviously, Emeka was very frustrated by his situation and there is really no timeframe for him.”

Wall: “It’s tough to see a guy like Mek go that was a great professional for us and what he did for our team, especially helping me in learning things, but it was kind of tough not knowing if he would play this year.”

Head coach Randy Wittman: “We’re not just trading a player for a player, with Mek not being on the floor yet this year. That’s the beauty about the situation. We had no idea when, or if, Emek, was going to be back. So, this gives us a free body that we didn’t have.”

Not just a free body, but a big body, a 6-foot-11, 240-pounder efficient in the pick-and-roll and better offensively than the man he replaces. Nor Okafor’s equal on defense, but Gortat is a big body willing to bang and defend those in the middle so power forward Nene and his perennial aching body doesn’t have to.

“Now we have a true center. Look at my face,” said the grinning Brazilian big man, who has not been shy about stating his positional preference. “[Gortat] is going to help us a lot. He’s a veteran … high IQ big man. He knows how to play. We feel sad for Emeka, he was a great teammate, but we need the position. [The organization] did an amazing job. They surprised me.”

Considering the team’s playoffs-or-bust mentality, considering the young frontcourt options — namely Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely — provided no assurance they could step up into larger roles, nobody should be surprised. Considering the trade laid out on a Venn diagram would show a tiny not-so-sweet spot, nobody should be scratching their head.

The first round pick is protected through the 12th selection. If the Wizards make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, the pick heads to Phoenix without complaint. If the Wizards miss the playoffs, they keep the pick as long as they don’t end up with the 13th or 14th selection. Barring bad luck with ping-pong balls, that’s a safe bet considering there are more strong teams than available postseason berths out West.

The Wizards will enter next offseason with a hole at center — and potentially around $16 million in cap space now that they have reportedly declined options on Vesely and Chris Singleton. Make the playoffs and the Wizards become more attractive to high-end free agents as a rising franchise headlined by the electric backcourt combo of Wall and Bradley Beal. Miss the playoffs and the Wizards have both a first round selection and cap space to address needs.

“That could become available to us if that’s a direction we want to go,” Grunfeld said of potentially adding a max contract free agent. “But we’ll worry about that next summer.”

They could also re-sign Gortat, who averaged 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks last season for Phoenix in what some considered a down effort. If the “Polish Machine” helps makes the Wizards a better team — he should offensively — and the money works out, why not.

As for guards Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee, Grunfeld will only worry about the other ex-Suns acquired in the deal for another day or so. Washington must trim three players by Monday to reach the league-maximum of 15. Grunfeld said he hasn’t made a final decision, but nobody is expecting that trio to stay with the Wizards.

The idea of making the playoffs this season, that notion has staying power. Without making the trade, maybe not.

“It hasn’t changed any,” Wittman said of the team’s postseason goals. “We talked about that. This wouldn’t make it change any. We still expect to fight for a spot in May. That’s our objective here.”

Derrick White didn’t lose teeth, passes concussion test after nasty fall in USA loss

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There were plenty of ugly things for Team USA in its loss to Australia on Saturday — most of them on the defensive end — but later in the day on Saturday there was some good news.

It sounds like point guard Derrick White will be fine after his nasty fall and face plant during the game, reports Tom Osborne of the San Antonio Express-News.

In the middle of the fourth quarter, White was pushing the ball upcourt after an Australia miss and either got clipped from behind — there was a foul called — or stumbled over his own feet. I lean clipped, but the video is not conclusive.

White fell and faceplanted, with his head bouncing off the court. If he got away with just stitches, that’s good news for Team USA. If White had a concussion it is possible he would have missed the start of the World Cup, and the USA is not deep at the point guard spot on this roster (Kemba Walker and White are the only true point guards, a couple of players such as Marcus Smart can play a few minutes there but aren’t really suited to the position).

Team USA has one more exhibition game against Canada, then opens World Cup play on Sept. 1 in China against the Czech Republic.

Grizzlies officially waive Dwight Howard, first step on his path to Lakers

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Lakers fans are uncomfortable with it, but the Lakers did a good job hedging their bet with a non-guaranteed contract: Dwight Howard is coming to the Lakers.

That process started on Saturday with the Grizzlies officially waiving Howard.

In theory, any team could claim Howard off waivers. In practice, no team is picking up his full $5.6 million salary.

Howard gave back $2.6 million in his buyout with the Grizzlies, which is exactly how much his veteran minimum contract with the Lakers will pay him.

Howard and JaVale McGee will have to tag team to play all the minutes at the five the Lakers need. Anthony Davis is their best center (and it’s not close, he’s arguably the best center in the NBA) but he wants to play the four most of the game, so for 30 minutes a night the Lakers need another big body at the five.

Howard has the potential to fill that role. For three seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Howard averaged 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, was a big body on defense, and played at least 71 games in averaging 30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use. The problem was Howard was never happy those years just playing that defense/set-a-pick-and-roll/rebound role. He wanted more touches and particularly in the post, which led to disruptions as he pushed for a larger role. It’s why he bounced around. Then last season he played just nine games due to more back and hamstring issues.

Howard is saying all the right things about accepting that role, and he convinced the Lakers to a degree, but that non-guaranteed contract shows the Lakers go into this eyes wide open. If Howard is up to his old antics, the Lakers can cut bait and move on.

It’s among the many things to watch in what should be an entertaining Lakers’ training camp this year.

On Mamba Day (8/24), former Lakers’ trainer Gary Vitti talks about what made Kobe great

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Kobe Bryant’s work ethic is legend.

It takes talent to become an MVP, 15-time All-NBA, 18-time All-Star, and lock future Hall of Famer. However, it was how Kobe got the most out of his talent that separated him from his peers. Long-time Lakers trainer Gary Vitti retired a couple of years ago and will soon publish an autobiography, “32 Years of Titles and Tears from the Best Seat in the House: What I Learned about Happiness, Greatness, Leadership and the Evolution of Sports Science.”

Vitti joined Hall of Fame photographer Andrew D. Bernstein this week on an episode of Legends of Sport to discuss his upcoming book, and he talked about Kobe (hat tip to CNBC).

“He was talented, but what if I told you he wasn’t the most talented guy out there? I’m telling you, and I’ve had them all, there’s nothing really special about Kobe. I mean he’s a big guy, but he’s not that big. He was quick, but he’s not that quick. He’s fast, he wasn’t that fast. He was powerful, but he wasn’t that powerful. I mean, there were other players that had more talent than he did, so what was there about him that more talented players had zero rings and he ended up with five?…

“He was tough in the sense that he took ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ out of his lexicon and he just believed that he could do it. Kobe taught me that talent is the most overrated thing in life; it’s what you do with your talent.”

Nobody in NBA history did as much with the talent they had as Kobe.

On Mamba Day, enjoy his ultimate mixtape highlights above and remember what it took for Kobe to get there.

 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: ‘I am not Russell Westbrook. I’m just going to try to be myself.’

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Thunder fans are going to love Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Clippers did not want to give him up in the Paul George trade but had no real choice — Gilgeous-Alexander was a prize get for OKC. As a rookie last season he started 73 games, averaging 10.8 points and 3.3 assists per game for a 48-win playoff team. Playing the most difficult position to learn in the NBA. Gilgeous-Alexander grew as the season wore on and has a promising future.

But he is taking over for Russell Westbrook as the point guard for the Thunder, so the comparisons are inevitable. Even though they have radically different games. Gilgeous-Alexander handled the question well when asked, as reported by Erik Horne at The Oklahoman.

Gilgeous-Alexander smiled and said he could compete with Westbrook’s fashion sense. He also deflected any notion of pressure to live up to the legacy of the 2016-17 Most Valuable Player. “He set the bar pretty high,” Gilgeous-Alexander said…

“I am not Russell Westbrook,” Gilgeous-Alexander said with no malice. “I do not have the same name, same body type, stuff like that. So, I’m just going to try to be myself and be the best me and everything else will take care of itself.

“I’m just a basketball player. Regardless of the situation, I’m going to continue to work hard and play my game. I know that eventually it will come out. I don’t worry about starting. I’m not worried about accolades or things like that. I just work hard, keep my head down and (stay) true to who I am.”

That attitude is part of why Thunder fans will love him. Gilgeous-Alexander is confident but not cocky, and he knows his game.

That game is more traditional point guard, more game manager, than the dynamic and explosive Westbrook. Gilgeous-Alexander learned for a season under a smart, player-friendly coach in Doc Rivers, who built his point guard’s confidence up as the season wore on. Rivers showed the rookie how to be a professional, how to prepare, and most of all trusted Gilgeous-Alexander — and that trust included being matched up on Stephen Curry in a playoff series. Through it all, Gilgeous-Alexander showed real promise.

Whatever is next in Oklahoma City — and there is a lot of rebuilding to do with that roster, a lot of picks to be made still — Gilgeous-Alexander can help lead it. He will be at the heart of what is next for the Thunder.

Just don’t expect him to be Westbrook. There is only one of those.