Kobe is back but loss to Raptors shows Lakers still have a lot of work to do

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LOS ANGELES — Kobe passed the first challenge he has set before himself.

Eight months of never-ending therapy sessions and workouts to return to the court paid off — Kobe is back. He was introduced with Darth Vader’s theme music and Staples Center was buzzing like it was a playoff game. Kobe was on the court with the ball in his hands, particularly in the fourth quarter. It was what the Lakers nation had been waiting to see.

But what they saw wasn’t pretty.

“Right now my form is a horse s— form,” Bryant said bluntly after the game.

Fixing that and getting in sync with his teammates is the next challenge Kobe has to set his mind to.

Kobe said physically he felt right, but he looked understandably very rusty — like a guy who hadn’t played in an NBA game for eight months after Achilles surgery at age 35. Kobe was 2-of-9 shooting with eight turnovers. He led a group Lakers starters that shot 25 percent — not one of them scored in double digits.

Which is why the Lakers fell to the Raptors 106-94 to spoil Kobe’s much anticipated return.

This kind of rough start had to be expected (at least by anyone not seeing the world through purple and gold glasses). Not only was Kobe bound to be rusty but also the Lakers were going from a team where the ball was often in Steve Blake’s hands to one where Kobe controlled the flow of the offense.

“I felt good that I was able to get into the lane…” Kobe said after the loss. “I felt like I could penetrate and turn the corner, which was a big question mark for me. And then once I got in there I didn’t make the proper reads most of the time, but the fact of the matter I was able to get in there. The reads you can improve, the explosiveness you can’t.”

The other Lakers players (particularly the starters) were simply hesitant and guys were passive when Kobe was on the court. It wasn’t so much guys were just watching him (as has been an issue in the past) as much as just the movements in the offense were out of sync.

“We’re all trying to get used to playing with one another,” Lakers starting center Robert Sacre said. “It’s definitely been growing pains. I think we can handle it, nothing we haven’t seen before…

“I think it’s going to take a couple of games and unfortunately it’s not some easy games we’ve got coming down the pipe.”

The Lakers may not have a few games (they play the Suns Tuesday night followed by a four game road trip which includes Oklahoma City). In the deep Western Conference the 10-10 Lakers are the 10 seed and 1.5 games out of the playoffs. While it’s early and that’s not much, they can’t dig a much deeper hole if they plan to climb out of it and make the postseason because other teams are going to step over them. There is little forgiveness for slumps in the West.

Kobe showed some moments where he looked like his old self. For example his first bucket came with a pump fake lefty 10-foot bank with 5:07 left in second that was vintage. Late in the second quarter he used his jab step to create space for an 18-footer he nailed.

But mostly early we saw facilitator Kobe — and that is where the rust and lack of having played with guys through training camp and 19 games to start the season showed. Kobe was turning the ball over, clearly just not used yet to the speed of the NBA game and where the lanes to make passes would appear.

“He was as good as he can be, it’s going to take a while,” coach Mike D’Antoni said, repeating the mantra you heard from anyone in the Lakers locker room. “There’s no way he could do that, I know everybody thought he could but no way he could be out eight months, have no training camp, and come out and be in mid-season form.

“We knew that, which is why we needed the other guys needed to step up around him and we didn’t do that.”

What the Lakers did do was hide Kobe Bryant on defense — he guarded Landry Fields to start and later Steve Novak. He got switched onto DeMar DeRozan a few times and while he got an early steal that way generally that was a good matchup for the Raptors.

There were a lot of good matchups for the Raptors, particularly anyone in white trying to cover Amir Johnson who led Toronto with 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting. Toronto got 60 points in the paint with Johnson muscling his way in and DeRozan slashing his way (26 points). Without Rudy Gay (traded earlier in the day) Toronto moved the ball well and the Lakers had no good answers on that end.

Kobe knows the Lakers need to turn this around quickly. And planning to do his part of that in the most Kobe of ways.

“I couldn’t wait to start watching film and criticizing every little thing and I’ll go home tonight and watching over again, but that’s the exciting part,” Bryant said. “The exciting part is you got a challenge and you got some improvements to make and you sit and you watch them and you break it down and you get ready for the next game and carry it from there.”

It’s the next challenge and Kobe is ready for it. The fact that Kobe was back on the court just 240 days after having his Achilles torn is an accomplishment of a high magnitude. And some were able to really appreciate that.

“It’s my first time playing with Kobe, it’s something I can tell my son,” Shawne Williams said. “It was history to me.”

But Kobe is not one to dwell on history. He wants the next mountain to climb.

NBA owners approve 22-team format for resuming season with only Trail Blazers opposing

Trail Blazers owner Jody Allen
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We already knew many key details of the NBA’s plan for resuming the season:

  • Only the top 22 teams will continue.
  • Games will be held at Disney World in Orlando.
  • Each team will play eight more games (maybe with this schedule).
  • If the ninth-place team is within four games of the eighth-place team after those eight games, there will be a play-in series between the eighth- and ninth-place teams. To advance, the ninth-place team must win two games before the eighth-place team wins one.

Now, that plan is one step closer to becoming reality.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

It’s shocking the Trail Blazers, owned by Jody Allen, cast the protest vote. Portland – currently outside playoff position – will resume with a real chance to make the playoffs. What more did the Trail Blazers want?

Players must still approve the plan. National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said they wouldn’t necessarily vote on it. Union leadership has worked closely with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, certainly agreeing on the system before having owners vote on it.

However, given the NBPA’s haphazard methods for polling the larger membership, I’m not sure how widespread support is. There is room for significant disagreement on how players – continuing vs. non-continuing – will have their salaries affected.

Still, I expect players approve the plan, maybe tomorrow.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Everything is just too far down the road to turn back now. The financial incentives are too high not to keep trying to play. Silver has successfully rallied nearly everyone toward uniting.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Most of the remaining issues are minor details… like codifying a plan for health and safety.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

Report: Knicks to interview former Knicks coach Mike Woodson

Former Knicks coach Mike Woodson
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The Knicks appear set on both hiring Tom Thibodeau and conducting a coaching search.

Mike Woodson, who coached New York from 2012-2014, will be part of the process.

Ian Begley of SNY:

New York also interviewed Woodson in 2018 before hiring David Fizdale. I understand why the Knicks can’t make up their mind on whether they want him as their coach.

Woodson won 58% of his games with New York, the third-best mark in franchise history (behind Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy). In 2012-13, Woodson did some really creative things with Carmelo Anthony at power forward and two-point guard lineups.

But by the end of that season, Woodson went away from what worked. His views became increasingly suspect the next season. When the Knicks fired him, it appeared to be time to move one.

Will New York return to Woodson? Probably not. The expectation remains Thibodeau will get this job. But Woodson will at least have an opportunity to make his case for a very-strange return.

When Charles Barkley tried to recruit Dirk Nowitzki to Auburn

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Dirk Nowitzki was not headed to an American college before the NBA. Like most of the best European players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, even going back to Tony Kukoc and others — he was taking a straight trip from his European team to the NBA.

That didn’t stop Charles Barkley from trying to get him to go to Auburn.

It wasn’t meant to be, but Saad Yousuf at the Athletic tells the story of Barkley trying.

The Auburn alum reflected on his first meeting with Nowitzki, in 1997 at a Nike exhibition game in Germany, in which the Big German put on an offensive clinic against a team featuring Barkley, Pippen, Michael Jordan and other NBA talents…

Barkley called Nike and made a strong push to get to Nowitzki through any channel, legal or not. “Just tell him, anything he wants, we’ll get it done,” Barkley recalled in 2012. “Just give him anything he wants; he’s got to go to Auburn.”

Barkley didn’t stop there, though. Nowitzki left such an impression on Auburn’s greatest hoops export that Barkley even talked to Cliff Ellis, Auburn’s coach at the time, to encourage the program to make a run at this relatively unknown teenager in Europe.

Ellis notes that in 1997 he couldn’t just jump on YouTube and find clips of a player, there wasn’t much film of European players. Still, the coach was willing to go on Barkley’s word and reached out.

Turns out Kentucky, Stanford and other colleges did as well, but to no avail. Nowitzki went straight into the 1988 NBA Draft, where the Bucks took him ninth overall then executed a draft-night trade sending the big German to Dallas for Robert “Tractor” Traylor. The rest is Hall of Fame history.

For Barkley, Ellis, and Auburn fans, it’s quite the “what if.” That was a 29-4 Auburn team in 1997-98 that was an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed led by a couple of future NBA players (Mamadou N’Diaye and Chris Porter). Add Nowitzki into that mix and… we will never know. But it could have been glorius.

 

How will, should player salaries be allocated as only some NBA teams resume?

Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns and Mavericks star Luka Doncic
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The Timberwolves will play 64 games this season. The Mavericks will play 75-77 games before the traditional playoffs.

Should Dallas players get paid a higher percentage of their salaries than Minnesota players?

That’s one of the thorny questions as the NBA resumes its season.

Though players have individual contracts with defined salaries, there’s an overriding factor in determining actual wages. The Collective Bargaining Agreement calls for players and owners to split revenue approximately 50-50. Salaries are adjusted to reach that 50-50 split.

Each year, the salary cap is set to a number designed to get total player salaries to about 50% of league-wide revenue. Obviously, that’s a difficult target to hit precisely. So, there are mechanisms to adjust the distribution of money if necessary. If their total slated salaries are higher than 50% of revenue, players don’t receive their full salaries. If their total salaries are lower than 50% of revenue, players get a shortfall check from owners.

Coronavirus has disrupted that well-oiled system

The league is missing a major chunk of revenue. Players’ slated salaries would call for them to earn WAY more than 50% of revenue. That’s why the NBA has been withholding a portion of players’ salaries. Force majeure allows teams to reduce players salaries for games canceled due to an epidemic.

The NBA’s reported plan reveals the number of lost games. There were 259 regular-season games remaining when the season was suspended. The continued season includes 88 regular-season games (eight each for the 22 continuing teams) plus 0-4 play-in games.* No playoff games are being canceled.

*I’m counting play-in games as regular-season games. It’s a gray area. Perhaps, owners and players will agree to count them as postseason games. It probably doesn’t matter here, anyway. In terms of force majeure, regular-season and playoff games count equally. So, it’s simple enough to count them as regular-season games.

That’s 167-171 canceled games.

Except not every team will have the same number of games canceled.

There’s a four-game spread in the number of games each team has played so far. The Warriors, Timberwolves, Cavaliers, Pistons, Hawks, Knicks, Bulls and Hornets are done now. Every other team will play at least eight more games. The Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic, Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs, Suns and Wizards could play up to two play-in games.

Based strictly on games played, here’s how much players on each team stand to lose in salary:

  • Timberwolves: 19%
  • Hornets: 18%
  • Bulls: 18%
  • Cavaliers: 18%
  • Warriors: 18%
  • Pistons: 17%
  • Knicks: 17%
  • Hawks: 16%
  • Lakers: 12%
  • Spurs: 10%-12%
  • Celtics: 11%
  • Rockets: 11%
  • Clippers: 11%
  • Thunder: 11%
  • Raptors: 11%
  • Jazz: 11%
  • Nets: 9%-11%
  • Pelicans: 9%-11%
  • Kings: 9%-11%
  • Wizards: 9%-11%
  • Nuggets: 10%
  • Pacers: 10%
  • Heat: 10%
  • Bucks: 10%
  • 76ers: 10%
  • Grizzlies: 8%-10%
  • Magic: 8%-10%
  • Suns: 8%-10%
  • Trail Blazers: 6%-9%
  • Mavericks: 5%-8%

Is that fair to players on the eight done teams? They didn’t ask for their season to end prematurely.

On the other hand, they don’t have to do any more work. Other players must travel to Orlando, live under restrictions, play games with heightened injury concerns and risk contracting coronavirus just so the league can increase its revenue. Should eliminated players reap the rewards while sitting home?

This tension also exists in normal times. Players across 16 playoff teams divvied up just $20 million total for competing in the 2018 playoffs, and the amount was similar last year. Player income is largely earned on the regular season, even though the players playing in the playoffs disproportionately draw the revenue that funds everyone.

But the disparity feels sharper now – with the worst teams not even finishing the regular season and playoff teams facing a far larger burden just to keep playing.

To a certain degree, this is a player problem. Owners are going to pay approximately 50% of league revenue to players. The CBA dictates how players on each team should have their salaries cut through force majeure. If players want to share the losses more evenly among each other, owners should accommodate.

Consider this similar to cap smoothing, which the union infamously rejected. Except in that case, it was more just luck which players were in the favored class. Now, the players who could earn more will actually be the ones putting in the additional work. Then again, there could be a push for everyone to share the losses more equally.

Like many things disrupted by coronavirus, there are no good answers.