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: Tobias Harris won’t play for Team USA in World Cup, either

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The theoretical lineup of players who’ve withdrawn from consideration for Team USA’s FIBA World Cup roster just gained frontcourt depth.

So far, we had:

Add Tobias Harris.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Harris is a real loss. He’s a good player whose ability to blend with other good players – as he showed with the 76ers last season – would’ve made him particularly helpful on Team USA.

The Americans still have other forwards available – Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Harrison Barnes, Kyle Kuzma, Paul Millsap, P.J. Tucker. But none match Harris’ combination of talent and frontcourt versatility.

USA Basketball is down to just 14 players for its training camp next month:

The U.S. almost must add more players to the pool.

Wizards: We’ll offer Bradley Beal max contract extension, won’t trade him if he rejects it

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The Wizards will offer Bradley Beal a max contract extension when he’s eligible Friday, new general manager Tommy Sheppard confirmed to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Washington will give Beal his choice of length. The maxes:

  • One year, $34,502,129
  • Two years, $71,764,428
  • Three years, $111,786,897

But that’s less each season than Beal could get by playing out his current contract then re-signing. It’s even less each season than Beal could get by playing out his current contract then leaving. And it’s way less than Beal could get if he becomes eligible for a super-max deal (either an extension next offseason or re-signing in 2021) if he makes an All-NBA team either of the next two seasons.

Here are Beal’s max salaries on an extension and projected max salaries on a new contract:

Season Extension now Re-sign Leave Super-max*
2021-22 $34,502,129 $38M $38M $44M
2022-23 $37,262,299 $41M $39M $47M
2023-24 $40,022,469 $44M $41M $51M
2024-25 $111,786,897 $47M $54M
2025-26 $50M $58M
Total $111,786,897 $218M $118M $25M
Average $37,262,299 $44M $39M $51M

*Beal’s super-max amounts would be the same on an extension next offseason or fresh contract the following year.

So, it’s hard to see Beal accepting an extension.

He’d get financial security. There’s always risk in waiting – injury, unexpected decline or something else.

But Beal is so talented and just 26. The NBA is also short on quality shooting guards. He’s in tremendous position to secure a max contract in 2021 free agency.

So, how will the Wizards react if Beal doesn’t sign right now?

Wojnarowski:

If Beal passes on the extension, the Wizards have no plans to engage in trade talks with two years, $55.8 million left on his contract, Sheppard said.

“He’s got two years left on his deal, and he’s from Missouri and we are going to have to show him,” Sheppard told ESPN. “We need to show him that we are about building this the right way, that we aren’t going to have character-deficient guys around him. We are going to surround him with guys he wants to play with. He saw that right away in free agency with us bringing back Thomas Bryant.”

They’re really going to pitch him on playing with Thomas Bryant. Thomas Bryant! And I like Thomas Bryant. He was a breath of fresh air for the Wizards last season, and they re-signed him for $25 million over three years. But he’s also still just Thomas Bryant.

The NBA is full of star duos. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Bradley Beal and Thomas Bryant?

That’s supposed to tempt Beal to stay in Washington?

The Wizards will likely be bad next year. John Wall could miss the entire season, and his huge salary encumbered Washington’s ability to add other players. Beal has touted his loyalty to the Wizards. But after living through what will likely be a miserable season, how will he feel about Washington then?

Beal said the Wizards told him they wouldn’t trade him. Sheppard has now gone public with that message.

But Washington also pledged not to trade Otto Porter then dealt him to the Bulls a week later. Plans change. Sometimes, there’s posturing for negotiating position.

There’s still plenty left to unfold. Beal isn’t even yet eligible for an extension. Maybe he’ll shock me and sign one this summer.

If not, the Wizards likely face an uphill battle for keeping him happy enough to stay in 2021 free agency.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard’s advisor and uncle, Dennis Robertson, asked teams for guaranteed sponsorship money

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Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers won the offseason.

Leonard got a max contract to play in Southern California, where he grew up and clearly wanted to return. He’ll also be joined by his desired co-star, Paul George.

The Clippers get both stars and early status as championship favorite.

But the process has left some bitterness with the teams that didn’t get Leonard.

The Raptors have spread word Leonard’s advisor and uncle, Dennis Robertson, made unreasonable requests. The Lakers reportedly feel they got played in their Leonard pursuit.

Stephen A. Smith of ESPN:

This is me putting on my reporter’s hat here. People in NBA circles are talking about this right now. Allegedly, the uncle, Uncle Dennis, was asking for a lot of stuff from the other teams. Houses, planes, sponsorship, guaranteed sponsorship money, just as an example. They’re throwing this stuff out there.

I have no idea whether this is true or not. I’m not trying to cast any aspersions on Uncle Dennis. But people in NBA circles are talking about this as we speak.

This chatter is designed to make both Robertson and the Clippers look bad.

Robertson is painted as greedy and preposterous. The Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibits teams from providing players with those types of special benefits. In fact, a team arranging a sponsorship for its player is specifically listed as salary-cap circumvention.

Still, I don’t have a huge problem with Robertson asking. There have been numerous suspicions of under-the-table payments. If that happens regularly, of course Leonard should want his cut. If that’s not really something that happens, it’s on the teams to say no.

But did teams say no?

This raises questions about what the Clippers did to lure Leonard. They reportedly looked into acquiring his logo from Nike so they could gift it to him contingent on him signing. (That didn’t happen, and lawsuits between Leonard and Nike are pending). They also previously got fined for arranging a sponsorship for DeAndre Jordan when he was a free agent.

If there’s credible suspicion or even just accusations from other teams, the NBA should investigate. But people should put their names behinds their accusations – at the very least to the league.

Without that, this just looks like sour grapes.

Bradley Beal not playing for Team USA in World Cup

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How would this lineup fare in the 2019 FIBA World Cup?

Though undersized, that unit has a ton of talent. With even an average bench, that group could medal.

It’s a tribute to the United States’ depth of talent.

Those five players have all reversed plans to attend USA Basketball’s training camp next month. Beal is the latest to withdraw.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal has pulled out of playing with Team USA in the World Cup this summer, agent Mark Bartelstein told ESPN.

Beal is awaiting the birth of his second son during World Cup preparation and competition, which led to the decision.

That’s a joyous reason for Beal not to play.

It also leaves the Americans in a bind. They’re down to just 15 players listed as in consideration for the World Cup roster:

And Lowry is dealing with a thumb injury.

Donovan Mitchell is the only shooting guard on that list. Beal, McCollum and Gordon pulling out zapped the depth at that position. Team USA can use two-point guard lineups or play bigger wings like Khris Middleton at the two. But I wouldn’t be surprised if more players get added to the training-camp roster.