With Kobe staying as highest-paid player in NBA, the Lakers can rebuild but it’s not easy

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Kobe Bryant has signed a contract extension and is staying on with the Lakers for two more seasons. That news made Lakers nation happy — go to a Lakers game and you see the flood of 24 jerseys in the crowd — you quickly realize why the Lakers could not let him go at any cost. He fills the luxury boxes, he draws the sponsors, he is worth a lot to them financially. More than they can pay him.

But they are still paying him a lot.

ESPN reports the deal is for two years at $48.5 million — Kobe Bryant will remain the highest paid player in the NBA.

For a team that has sold its fan base on making moves with a lot of cap space this summer to again contend, this throws a little kink in the plan. A big kink. Maybe a crippling kink.

The Lakers will still have money to go after a max free agent (if they can recruit one, that’s another issue) but after that they wouldn’t have a lot left. Especially since they do not want to go over the luxury tax line next year, they want to get away from the repeater tax.

That is not going to make the Lakers a contender. The contract holds them back (remember Tim Duncan scaled back to $11 million, Kevin Garnett about the same).

The Lakers still should have about $22 million in cap space next summer, reports Larry Coon at his NBA CBAFAQ. (Ed. note: These numbers are updated from the original version of this post.) In case you’re curious, is more than LeBron James will get but less than Carmelo Anthony’s max ($23 million). Not that either of them are likely to leave their current settings ( you never know, but don’t bet on it). The Lakers will be in the market for second tier guys — Luol Deng, Zach Randolph, Danny Granger and others.

The salary cap next summer is projected to be $62.9 million. The Lakers will also have their own first round draft pick. Based on their current record, this pick would fall around #15, and would therefore count around $1.5 million against their cap.This would give them a total of about $37.66 million for six players. We need to add another six cap holds totaling $3,04 million, which brings the total to about $40,70 million.

With this team salary, the Lakers would have about $22.2 million in cap room next summer.

However, the situation gets even more complex for the Lakers.

The Lakers process has to start with a clear plan for  what kind of team they are building — if they are keeping Mike D’Antoni around as coach they can’t just go get anyone (particularly Carmelo Anthony), they need to get specific players that fit his system and what he wants to do.

The Lakers go into next season with three contracts on the books — Kobe at $23.5 million, Steve Nash with $9.7 million (with what he is saying I don’t expect he will retire), Robert Sacre at $915,243 (Elias Harris has a non-guaranteed deal, we will assume he is gone). They will have a roughly $1.5 million slot for their first-round draft pick this year. In theory Nick Young could stick around as he has a $1.2 million option, but it is more likely he opts out to try and find a longer deal. The Lakers have a player option on Ryan Kelly at $1 million they may pick up. The Lakers also likely would want to keep Jordan Hill around, but he is an unrestricted free agent playing his way into a bigger payday than the $3.5 million he made this year.

Then there are the cap holds — placeholders against what the Lakers can spend based on them keeping their own free agents. Pau Gasol is at $20 million, Steve Blake at $7.6 million and it goes on down the list through Chris Kaman, Jodie Meeks and others.

To have their max money to go after free agents the Lakers have to renounce their rights to all of those guys – plus Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and others playing well in their roles — and let them be free agents. Only then do they have the empty roster and cap space. Or they could re-sign those guys and cut into the $20 million.

Which is to say, the Lakers can’t just test the market and expect Gasol to be there as a fallback in case their dalliance with others doesn’t work out.

Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has said before rebuilding is a multi-year process for the Lakers — they are not going to check everything off the box this summer.

But if they are going to get Kobe Bryant the ring No. 6 he so desperately wants they only have a couple of years now as a window. And it’s not going to be easy to get those guys. Not with Kobe’s salary on the books.

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto return trip to Finals? It could happen.

NBA Power Rankings
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This is the penultimate NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings (we’ll have one next week before the playoffs start) and we have a new No. 1 in Toronto. Once again this ranking only covers the 22 teams invited to the NBA restart in Orlando.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (51-19, 5-1 in the bubble, Last Week No. 2). Toronto has locked up the two seed in the East and it has done that with its defense — the Raptors are the best defense at the restart, allowing less than a point per possession. The offense has been good enough but not championship level (second worst in the bubble, ahead of only the Lakers) and Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and company must lift that up if the Raptors are serious about a repeat.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (56-16, 3-4, LW 3). Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly be sitting out the Bucks final seeding game after headbutting Moe Wagner (the suspension is coming). It doesn’t really matter, the Bucks have the No. 1 seed locked up. The Bucks played it slow with the ramp up through the restart, but now they are healthy (Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton are with the team) and we will see if the strategy worked.

 
Lakers small icon 3. Lakers (52-18, 3-4, Last week No. 1). The Laker offense has woken up in flashes — a 137.8 offensive rating against the Nuggets (complete with a Kyle Kuzma game-winner), or watching Anthony Davis drop 42 on the Jazz. But the offense has stumbled through other games and LeBron James admitted he is still adapting to playing without fans in the building. It’s all a small sample size and doesn’t matter because the Lakers are the No. 1 seed, but if they face the Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard in the first round, they need to be better.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (48-23, 5-2, LW 8). Winners of four in a row, and that includes a 22-point thumping of the Raptors that should be a confidence booster heading into the playoffs. Versatile teams make deep playoff runs, and a guard/wing rotation with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward — with Marcus Smart off the bench — is exactly that. Boston looks like a real threat in the East.

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (47-23, 3-3, LW 4). Montrezl Harrell is back in the bubble and going through quarantine, which means Doc Rivers may have a full roster of players for the Clippers final seeding game (Friday, against Oklahoma City, a game that could have seeding implications on the West) and into the playoffs. The Clippers shooters need to find their legs and there are chemistry questions because this team hasn’t played together, but they are still a title contender.

 
Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (44-26, 4-2, LW 5). Houston has the fourth best defense in the bubble. Let that sink in. If a team with James Harden and other bombers from three (plus Russell Westbrook) is also defending at a high level, then you are looking at a title contender. Whether they can defend like that against a taller team for seven games remains to be seen, but Houston’s defense has looked legitimate in the bubble.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (44-27, 3-3, LW 7). Jimmy Butler got in T.J. Warren’s face, shut down the leading scorer in the bubble, and the Heat got a statement win against the Pacers, their likely first-round opponent. Butler has been a perfect fit into the Heat culture and his ability to rise to the occasion in the playoffs could see Miami challenging the presumptive power in the East in the second round of the playoffs.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (43-28, 4-2 LW 9). T.J. Warren is a lock for the All-restart team, his scoring leap has been one of the wonders of the bubble. But, Jimmy Butler holding Warren to a 5-of-14 shooting night this week is concerning, mostly because come the playoffs the good teams can always take away (or at least slow down) offensive option Plan A, and it’s a working Plan B (and C and D) that gets teams deep into the postseason. Do the Pacers have that with Victor Oladipo right now?

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (43-27, 3-3, LW 6). Their seeding may come down to the final day of “seeding games” on Friday when Chris Paul takes on his former team, the Clippers. It’s a potential playoff matchup with another former CP3 team, the Rockets, that has NBA fans (and television network executives) buzzing. That would be fun to watch, and the series could turn on how many minutes (and how well) the recently returned Andre Roberson could cover James Harden a game.

 
Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (34-39, 5-2, LW 11). Damian Lillard is on a tear — 112 points last two games on 55% shooting — that has put the Trail Blazers in the drivers’ seat for a return to the playoffs. Win on Thursday and Portland is the eighth seed, meaning they only need to win one-of-two play-in games and they will be back in the postseason (against the Lakers in the first round). Gary Trent Jr. has been a breakout star for the Blazers in the bubble.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (46-25, 3-3, LW 10). Jamal Murray was back on the court over the weekend and instantly was hitting big shots and showing how important he is for the offense. Combined with the emergence of Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets offense has looked good (top 10 in the bubble). However, Denver has the worst defense in the NBA restart and that makes it very vulnerable to a first-round upset (regardless of who the Nuggets face, and that is still up in the air).

 
Suns small icon 12. Suns (33-39, 7-0, LW 17). BREAK UP THE SUNS! Phoenix was an afterthought in the West heading into restart but a 7-0 record has it on the brink of getting into the West play-in tournament. The Suns need to beat the Mavericks and get some help (a Memphis or Portland loss), but even being in this position is impressive. Devin Booker has made his case for bubble MVP.

 
Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (43-31, 3-4, LW 13). Luka Doncic has been magical in the bubble, but the Dallas defense has been terrible (third worst in the bubble) and because of that the Mavericks don’t scare anyone heading into the playoffs. It’s not written in ink yet, but a first-round matchup with the Clippers seems destined (and that bad wing defense by Dallas makes that a brutal matchup for them).

 
Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (32-38, 5-2, LW 15). The playoff streak of 22 years is going to need a lot of help to stay alive. The Spurs need to beat the Jazz on Thursday (and Utah is playing for seeding) then get losses from two of the Grizzlies, Blazers, and Suns. Even if the streak dies, the bubble has been another testament to the brilliance of Gregg Popovich. He overhauled the LaMarcus Aldridge/DeMar DeRozan system they played all season to go with a fast-paced four-guard/wing lineup that has been fun to watch and won games. Derrick White has been one of the breakout stars of the bubble.

 
Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (42-29, 3-3, LW 12). No Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid is expected to be back for the playoffs (and maybe the final seeding game)but will be coming off a tweaked ankle. The 76ers will almost certainly face the Celtics in the first round. Al Horford has played well in the restart, and if Matisse Thybulle, Alec Burks, Josh Richardson and others can find chemistry together this is still a good defensive team. But they don’t scare Boston right now.

 
Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (43-28, 2-4, LW 14). The Jazz have struggled with critical aspects of what they want to do — defend the paint, hit threes, much more — during the restart, but have shown flashes of it coming together in recent games (Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles have both had strong games). Still, this was a team all about elite defense the past two seasons, but in the bubble their defense has been average and the offense has not been good enough to carry the load. If the defense doesn’t improve (particularly on the perimeter) it doesn’t matter who they play.

 
Nets small icon 17. Nets (35-36, 5-2, LW 20). It was a rag-tag roster thrown together late because of all the players the Nets lost, but Jacque Vaughn coached this team to wins over the Bucks, Kings and Clippers, and the Nets have locked down the seven seed (avoiding the Bucks in the first round… not that Toronto is a pushover). Chris LeVert and Jarrett Allen have shown why they should get minutes next season on a deeper Nets roster. Joe Harris has shown why the Nets need to back up the Brinks truck and re-sign him this summer.

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (32-40, 2-5, LW 16). Orlando struggled in a run of games against some of the better teams in the East, and that has locked them into the eighth seed — meaning they will face the Bucks in the first round without Jonathan Isaac or Aaron Gordon. Good luck with that. If you’re a Magic fan looking for a bright side… Gary Clark has shown some flashes. That’s all we got.

 
Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (33-39, 1-6, LW 19). Ja Morant shot a respectable 34.3% from three for the season, but that has fallen to 25% in the bubble and its one of the things holding the Memphis offense back (no Jaren Jackson Jr. hurts, too). Despite all that, the Grizzlies can advance to the play-in game if they can find a way to knock off the Bucks on Thursday (Milwaukee may be without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension for headbutting Moe Wagner).

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (30-41, 2-5, LW 21). Sacramento’s playoff drought is now up to 14 seasons, the second longest in NBA history. Whatever is happening on the court, the Kings have been getting it right in the community and that includes their latest effort, “Rally the Vote,” which is working with 19 other professional sports teams to encourage people to register and vote.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (30-41, 2-5, LW 18). The rumors about Alvin Gentry’s job status have been around for a while and picked up a lot of momentum after the Pelicans entered the restart with so much hype, only to have the pieces not quite fit together (and Zion Williamson not be fully available at the start, although that was beyond Gentry’s control). Would a strong Xs and O’s coach help put the talent of the Pelicans in better positions? Would New Orleans ownership okay a coaching change during a pandemic when there is a short offseason and financial losses are piling up? It’s worth watching.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-47, 0-7, LW 22). The Wizards were always a longshot for the playoffs, the hope was to find some young guys who might fit well in a rotation next to John Wall and Bradley Beal next season. Washington found a couple, Troy Brown Jr. and big man Thomas Bryant have played well in the restart. They deserve a longer look next season as the Wizards try to put a playoff-level team on the court and then keep it healthy.

Giannis Antetokounmpo suspended, ramifications on Western Conference playoff race

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Giannis Antetokounmpo headbutted Moritz Wagner.

OF COURSE Antetokounmpo was getting suspended for that.

NBA release:

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has been suspended one game without pay for headbutting Washington Wizards center Moritz Wagner during a stoppage in play, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

Antetokounmpo will serve his suspension Thursday when Milwaukee faces the Memphis Grizzlies

This is a huge game for the Grizzlies. If they win, they’ll make the play-in. Lose, and they’d need both the Suns (to the Mavericks) and Spurs (to the Jazz) to lose in order to advance.

Obviously, Antetokounmpo is a force. But Milwaukee has nice depth and has been quite good without him. On the other hand, Bucks have also already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and might take it easy tomorrow, regardless. On the other other hand, Milwaukee – with a chance to reach the NBA Finals – might be one of the teams trying to get the top-seeded Lakers the toughest-possible first-round matchup in the West.

That’s not Memphis, which has limped to the finish. The Grizzlies are just 1-6 in seeding games. Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow are all injured.

Memphis has a chance against the Bucks tomorrow. Antetokounmpo’s unavailability only increases it. But it’s not as if this suspension suddenly gives the Grizzlies a shoe-in victory.

As has been the case all along, they’ll have to earn their way into the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.