PBT Roundtable: What to expect when Kobe Bryant does return

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This is the latest in our looks around the NBA, with our PBT writers giving their thoughts on the topics of the day in the NBA. And right now, the big topic around the league is Kobe:

We’ve documented his return in excruciating detail, but the big questions remain: What does Kobe Bryant realistically bring to the Lakers upon his return? What should we expect from the Lakers going forward?

Kurt Helin: There is going to be a little rough patch at first, even Mike D’Antoni has said they will need to find a new team identity. That said, and despite the unreasonable expectations in Los Angeles (you’d swear they were getting the 2003 Kobe back if you listen to sports talk radio in L.A.), he can only help the Lakers offense. Of course, playing Papa Smurf at the three could only help the Lakers offense the way it has gone lately. The Lakers have actually played pretty close to league average defense this season, surprisingly, but their offense is 25th in the league in points per possessions, they lack shot creators and they don’t get to the line. Kobe is not going to be vintage — he’s going to be slowed, not as explosive — but even so he will draw defenders, get shots and get fouled. The Lakers are not going to be good with Kobe, but they can be an average team with dreams of a low playoff seed. And that was always the ceiling for this year’s Lakers anyway.

Dan Feldman: Immediately, he’ll muck up their offense. The Lakers are playing faster than they have since Showtime, and a likely still-somewhat-hobbled Kobe will disrupt that. But that adjustment period will be worth the long-term benefit of having such a great player on the court. As Kobe gets healthy and the Lakers learn to play with him, the Lakers’ offense should climb above 25th.

The Lakers have done a good job of remaining in the playoff periphery without Kobe, and his return should boost their postseason chances. Still, I think they’ll fall short and have to settle for a late lottery pick.

Darius Soriano: I agree with Kurt in that expectations, especially from the Kobe zealots, are that he will return as if he was never injured. Part of that is his history of playing well through various ailments and part of that is simply the mythology of Kobe Bryant. However, count me amongst those who are cautiously optimistic that he can perform at a reasonably high level offensively once he works his way back into game shape and gets a good feel for how he fits into this particular roster.

In terms of what he brings to this team, I think his biggest impact is two-fold. First, building on what Kurt said, Kobe instantly becomes the team’s most complete offensive player. He can score and pass; he can create for himself and others from the wing or the post. He’s a true threat from anywhere on the floor and that’s something the Lakers have missed this year. Second, and maybe more important, is that Kobe brings some needed leadership and helps this group continue to define its identity. This team has really taken on the personality of its coach — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — but what they haven’t had is someone on the floor (rather than the sidelines) they can lean on or look to consistently on when things start to get tough. Kobe, for better or for worse, will gladly take on that burden and will shape the mindset of this group simply because of the weight he carries in the locker room and the gravity of his personality.

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.