The Extra Pass: You may not believe this, but a D’Antoni team is winning with defense, plus game recaps

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LOS ANGELES — Six games ago, a frustrated Mike D’Antoni decided to shake up the rotation of his struggling 3-5 Lakers: Chris Kaman was out of the starting lineup, Jordan Hill was in; Nick Young became a sixth man and Wesley Johnson became the starting three; and with Steve Nash out Jodie Meeks became Steve Blake’s backcourt mate.

It worked — after the Lakers 100-86 win over Sacramento Sunday night, Los Angeles improved to 4-2 with that rotation and they have won three straight. Yes, they have done this mostly at home (5-of-6) but the bottom line is the Lakers are a .500 team at 7-7.

And you can thank the defense.

Seriously. A Mike D’Antoni team is winning with defense. A team that was 17th in the NBA in defense last season then lost its two best defenders is winning with defense.

In those six games the Lakers are allowing just 97.9 points per 100 possessions, which would be fifth best in the NBA on the season. Opponents are shooting just 42.5 percent overall and 31 percent from three. Teams are converting on only 55.2 percent of their shots in the restricted area and they are shooting 31.8 percent from the midrange.

An active and at times swarming Lakers defense frustrated the Kings in the second half Sunday as Sacramento shot just 33.3 percent in the final 24 minutes, putting up just 38 points. The Kings had an offensive rating of 88.1

“We are sticking to our principles a lot,” D’Antoni said after the Lakers win Sunday. “I think they’re getting to the point where they’re not thinking about things and just reacting and sticking to what we are doing. They’re just following the game plan really well. The last part is their effort. They want to do it. I think because you share the ball on offense and everyone feels good about how they are playing that transfers on the defensive end and get more team energy.”

The Lakers are doing it with energy — this is not a team of lock-down defenders or elite athletes known for their defense. But starting with the ball of energy that is Jordan Hill on the back end the Lakers are doing a good job of driving guys to help and closing out on shooters. They are playing hard and fundamentally sound defense. In the NBA, a league full of athletes, defense really starts with effort.

“Intensity,” Pau Gasol said of the defensive improvement. “I think we’re communicating. I think we’re doing a good job defensively. For the most part I think we did a good job of holding this team to 86 points. I think we showed a great effort and we just have to keep that up.”

Is this sustainable long-term? Likely not, at least not at this level. We’ll see if the Lakers can keep that up on the road, with three games in four nights this week — Washington, Brooklyn and Detroit. Then they come home to the red-hot offense of Portland. That is going to test the Lakers newfound defensive commitment. Plus soon they will work Kobe Bryant back into the rotation — a 35-year-old guy coming off a serious surgery.

But at least for a couple of weeks now, the Lakers have done it with defense. Which was about the last thing we expected from them this season.

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Pistons 109, Nets 97: Brooklyn looked like they could get a win at home after a pretty good first half — Joe Johnson had 16 points in the first 24 (he finished the game with 34) and with a late 13-2 run the Nets were up 7 at the break. Then the third quarter happened. The Nets shot 26.3 percent in the third, the Pistons shot 66.7 percent and got to the line. Brandon Jennings had 10 in the quarter. Brooklyn couldn’t make that up in the fourth as the Pistons stayed hot. Rodney Stuckey led the Pistons with 27.

Clippers 121, Bulls 82: Did Chicago miss Derrick Rose? Yes. But that’s not why they lost by 39 — Chicago just did not show up defensively. The Clippers have the second best offense in the NBA this young season and they showed hit hitting 58.5 percent of their shots, they were moving the ball (32 assists on 48 makes) and they had an offensive rating of 129 on the night (they are averaging 108.6 on the season). Jared Dudley led the way for the Clippers with 21 and hit 4-of-5 from three. Chris Paul had 16 points and 17 assists. Don’t expect another bad Bulls defensive performance, Tom Thibodeau seemed frustrated with it after the game.

Suns 104, Magic 96: The Suns took the lead with a 13-5 run in the first quarter, led the whole way on the road and even when the Magic got within three it felt like the Suns would get the win. The reason is Goran Dragic who was just the best player on the floor — 23 points, 13 assists, and no turnovers. Gerald Green added 20 and the Suns just got the tempo up and the Magic could not keep up. Good news for Orlando —Tobias Harris was back in the lineup. He looked rusty but he was at least back.

Thunder 95, Jazz 73: Oklahoma City is a good team in a good groove lately. Utah is a bad team playing worse than anyone in the NBA. Together this is what you get — OKC had doubled up Utah at one point, 66-33. This game had all the suspense of “How I Met Your Mother” will end, we’ll spare you the long story. Suffice to say moving Marvin Williams into Utah’s starting lineup didn’t change anything, and as you might expect rookie Trey Burke struggled in his first NBA start. Utah won the last quarter by 10 or this would have looked a lot worse. Kevin Durant had 19 on 9 shots, Perry Jones had a nice 13 off the Thunder bench. Enes Kanter and Rudy Gobert with 10 each led the Jazz. Yes, seriously.

Lakers 100, Kings 86: As discussed above, the Lakers had a solid offensive night — Xavier Henry had 21 points, Pau Gasol had 20 points and 10 rebounds — but the Lakers really won this game with defense. In the second half the Kings scored just 38 points on 33.3 percent shooting as the Lakers protected the rim well and closed out aggressively on shooters. The Lakers led most of the way but never by much until the Lakers bench (often its spark plug this season) put up a 10-0 run late in the third then a 15-6 run to start the fourth. At that point it was over. DeMarcus Cousins had 17 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists but couldn’t get really going as the Lakers threw a lot of bodies at him. Greivis Vasquez had 20 points and kept the Kings going in the first half. But the Lakers turned their defense into transition offense and pulled away for the win.

Report: NBA executives expect busy in-season trade market

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For the first time in years, the NBA feels wide open — more than 10 NBA front offices think they have a shot at an NBA title next season (a few of them are delusional about that, but they believe). It’s one of the reasons we saw such an aggressive trade market last summer, teams thought they had an opening so the Clippers (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George), Lakers (Anthony Davis), Nets (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant), Houston Rockets (Russell Westbrook), and others were aggressive on the free agent and trade markets to land stars.

Expect that aggressive mindset to carry over to the in-season trade market.

That’s what executives have been telling Sean Deveney of Heavy.com.

“We’ve been getting calls all summer,” one general manager told Heavy.com. “There are a lot of things we are considering. The dust settles a little, you’re aware of your weaknesses and your holes and so you find ways to address that. I think we’re going to see more of that than usual. I think if you look at the market, there is going to be a very brisk trade market this winter for a few reasons.”…

Chief among those reasons is a sense that next spring’s Larry O’Brien trophy is up for grabs, a feeling that took hold during last year’s Finals when Kevin Durant of the Warriors ruptured his Achilles tendon and crystallized when Golden State lost to Toronto, then saw Durant sign with the Nets as a free agent…

The other big driver of the trade market this season figures to be the open, empty crater that the 2020 free-agent class has become. Teams hoping to make significant changes in their direction won’t have free agency to lean on. Trades will be the way to go.

The lack of a decent free agent class in 2020 is why teams are still eyeing and calling Washington about Bradley Beal (and those calls continue to be rejected, Washington is not interested as of now and Beal himself wants to stay because he wants to qualify for the $250 million supermax contract and only the Wizards can give it to him). The only big 2020 free agent is Anthony Davis and nobody around the league thinks he’s leaving the Lakers and LeBron James after all he did to get there. After that, the biggest unrestricted names are Kyle Lowry, Andre Drummond (player option), DeMar DeRozan (player option), Danilo Gallinari, and Goran Dragic. There are restricted free agents such as Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown, but they will be expensive to steal away.

With high expectations in a lot of front offices after last summer, when the reality of the season hits and holes in the roster are exposed — or injuries create new ones — teams are going to make moves to fill them. Trade rumors are going to fly around the league and the rumor mill will continue to be on full tilt, something fans love but the league is wary about. Owners and NBA league execs don’t like the focus on player movement being bigger than the games themselves, in part because the games are where the money is made, the teams don’t cash in from trade rumors. Put simply, winning Twitter doesn’t put money in an owner’s pocket.

That’s not going to stop the rumors, expect them to be flying again all season long.

Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball reportedly working out with no restrictions in NOLA

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a bright future ahead of them. This season will be the first for No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson, and the team is expected to be a playoff contender thanks to a solid young core and proven veterans like Jrue Holiday.

But one of the things that could hold the Pelicans back? Health.

Both Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball — two of the cornerstone pieces sent over in the Anthony Davis trade with the Los Angeles Lakers — have battled various ailments. Ingram had a blood clot that knocked him out in March. Ball had been dealing with an ankle injury for most of 2019.

A team with this many fresh faces will need as much time together as they can get, and so it’s good news that both Ingram and Ball are reportedly getting some run in recent practices.

Via ESPN:

New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram and guard Lonzo Ball have been full participants in the team’s voluntary offseason workouts in New Orleans, a source told ESPN on Tuesday.

Neither player has been restricted by the injuries that shut them down last season while members of the Los Angeles Lakers, representing a significant step with training camp around the corner on Oct. 1.

New Orleans is expected to be a challenger in the Western Conference, which has been weakened by the departure of Kevin Durant (and the injury to Klay Thompson) in the Bay Area. Yes, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George represent a formidable force for the Los Angeles Clippers, but the parity in the Western Conference should allow a team like the Pelicans to make some noise.

If his team can get healthy and find some rhythm, it might be a quick turnaround for David Griffin after losing Davis via trade not so long ago.

Joel Embiid says he’s lost 25 pounds this summer (VIDEO)

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The big knock against Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid was that he just wasn’t in shape enough to play NBA basketball. Several times down the stretch last year, and Embiid couldn’t be relied upon to play from a conditioning standpoint.

But all that might be about to change.

In a recent video posted to social media, Embiid could be seen eating extremely hot chip as part of a marketing campaign. As Embiid gulped down the fiery junk food, he mentioned that he had actually lost 25 pounds over this summer.

“This summer I lost about 25 pounds,” said Embiid as he struggled to deal with the heat from the Carolina Reaper-laced chip by gulping down glasses of milk. “I’m about to put it back on with this milk.”

That’s a huge bit of news for Sixers fans who have derided Embiid’s lack of willpower when it has come to his diet. The Cameroonian center famously loved Shirley Temple’s, and there have been stories of him eating huge amounts of Chik-fil-A and up to four milkshakes in one sitting.

A thinner, slimmer Embiid should not only take some weight off of his knees and ankles, but it might also allow Brett Brown to keep his best player in the game for longer stretches in important situations.

Summer in the NBA is rife with news of #musclewatch, but for now here’s hoping that Embiid can keep the weight off. Keep counting those calories, my dude.

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.