Kobe Bryant returned, Rudy Gay was traded, and the Knicks were crushed. Grading a busy Sunday of NBA action:
Toronto Raptors: What the Toronto Raptors have not had in recent years is a GM with a plan and financial flexibility. With this and previous trades you get a sense that GM Masai Ujiri has a plan. First, get the big contracts for guys you don’t want to build around off the roster — goodbye Andrea Bargnani and now Rudy Gay. This trade saves them $13 million in obligations next summer. It also removes the Gay/DeMar DeRozan roster duplication. If they want they can bet on DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and whoever they can get in the draft (clearly the target) as a start for a rebuild. More than that, the Raptors can buy out John Salmons for $1 million after this season, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson are on rookie deals, and Chuck Hayes is solid and makes $5.9 million next season. Flexibility. Plus Vasquez on the roster means they can shop Kyle Lowry hard. Can the Raptors recruit a superstar up to the north as an anchor? Maybe not. But they have picks the next couple years to chase one and the flexibility to put a good team around him. — Kurt Helin
Sacramento Kings: If you judge your trade winner based on who got the best player then the Kings “won” Sunday’s trade — Rudy Gay is a quality wing. Sure, he’s a volume scorer (read: not efficient) but he puts up points and is a shot creator the Kings could use. Aaron Gray is a solid big in the middle. Kings fans will not miss John Salmons in the least, plus now they get more Isaiah Thomas. That said, after watching Gay fire up jumpers rather than feed an open Jonas Valanciunas in the paint all season, not sure if he is really a great fit with DeMarcus Cousins. Still, this is a nice move for a rebuilding Kings team. Bottom line: if Gay opts out of the $19.3 million he is due next season it is a good trade for Sacramento (it’s possible if he thinks he can get the security of four years and say $35 million). If he stays for another season it’s not bad financially (and the team likely is still lottery bound), and they could possibly move him next season. — KH
Kobe Bryant: Bryant played 28 minutes in his season debut, but was in facilitator mode from the start and appeared understandably rusty offensively, which was to be somewhat expected after an eight-month absence. Bryant finished 2-of-9 from the field with nine points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals and eight turnovers — a fine start for a player finding his way back into the rhythm of regular season game action after so much time missed.
New York Knicks: It isn’t easy to lose by 41 points at home, but the Knicks got the job done proving yet again that tip-off times of 12 noon just aren’t their style. After briefly turning the corner by following up a nine-game losing streak by winning consecutive games by 30-plus points, New York fell behind by 25 points in the first quarter on Sunday, essentially ensuring defeat less than 12 minutes into Sunday’s contest.
The Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
LeBron James, via Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:
“They said I couldn’t do it.”
“I’ll enjoy this one,” James said, nodding as he grinned. “They said I can’t do it.”
The Lakers entered the season fifth in the West in over-under wins (behind the Rockets, Clippers, Jazz and Nuggets).
But nobody credible thought the Lakers couldn’t get the No. 1 seed. With LeBron and Anthony Davis, the Lakers obviously had that type of upside. Their championship odds were far more favorable. The main doubts stemmed from how seriously LeBron would take the regular season.
That said, in the age of social media, players hear both more praise and more criticism than ever before. LeBron surely heard from haters who ruled him out. Crowning himself the Washed King, LeBron probably internalized that fringe opinion.
Many players find slights to use as motivation. It worked for Michael Jordan. It works for LeBron.
But it does sound silly when an exalted player like LeBron talks this way.
Paul George said he left the Pacers because they weren’t willing to spend enough.
Apparently, he wasn’t the only one to feel that way.
Larry Bird resigned as Pacers president in 2017, citing a desire to do more things outside basketball. Yet, he also reportedly had another reason.
Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:
Indiana is a small-market team that consistently has not gone out and paid big money. We know that this was something that frustrated Larry Bird, who is a legend in the state of Indiana and elsewhere, I might add. It frustrated him enough that he stepped aside.
Pacers owner Herb Simon has a certain way of doing things. Indiana hasn’t paid the luxury tax since 2006, the first year the tax line was set before the season.
Despite that, the Pacers have been pretty good. They’ve qualified for the playoffs nine of the last 10 seasons, peaking with appearances in the 2013 and 2014 Eastern Conference finals.
Still, Indiana has lost in the first round four straight years. Another first-round loss appears the most likely outcome for this season.
That’s not exactly satisfying for players who want to win championships. Spending big isn’t absolutely necessary to compete on the highest levels. But it helps.
Pacers star Victor Oladipo is approaching 2021 unrestricted free agency. He’s a competitor who’ll evaluate, among other things, whether his current franchise matches his ambitions.
It’s easy to spend someone else’s money. Simon can decide his own limits. But there are consequences of his spending restraint – especially as perception grows about his relative thriftiness.
J.J. Redick has made the playoffs all 13 of his previous NBA seasons.
The Pelicans have put that streak in jeopardy.
New Orleans lost its first two games in the bubble, a nail-biter against the Jazz and a rout against the Clippers. During that loss to L.A., cameras captured Redick – on the floor exercising his back while out of the game – with a distant stare that became an instant meme.
Redick on ESPN Daily:
I was angry we got our butts kicked. It’s embarrassing, and I think my face summed up that first half pretty well.
There’s so many circumstances you could apply the emotions that I was going through in that moment.
Redick is right: That meme fits many occasions, which gives it staying power.
However, it has plenty of competition. Though the feelings displayed aren’t the exact same, Redick didn’t even have the best reaction inside the bubble by an exasperated NBA player. That belongs to Nuggets star Nikola Jokic:
At least Redick got reason to perk up. The Pelicans beat the Grizzlies yesterday to gain ground in the playoff race.
Darren Collison shocked the NBA last summer when he walked away from the game at age 32 — and a likely contract in the four-year, $70+ million range — and retired. His reasons were legitimate, he wanted to focus on his religion — “While I still love basketball, I know there is something more important, which is my family and my faith,” Collison said at the time — but the league has seen a lot of players say they were walking away for good reasons only to come running back.
The rumors about a Collison return started just after January 1 and spun out of control in Los Angeles when he sat with Lakers’ owner Jeanie Buss at a game.
Collison stayed retired, and told the “Minute til 6” podcast it wasn’t even close. He was never coming back.
“To keep it 100, they overhyped the whole thing. Like, I wasn’t even thinking about coming back.”
That game he went to? He just came to watch his friend Russell Westbrook.
“I just wanted to come watch the game as a fan.”
Collison also is smart enough to know how him sitting with Buss would be perceived.
Collison was wanted. The Lakers run LeBron James at the point but could have used the veteran Collison in the role Rajon Rondo filled as a secondary playmaker (Rondo is currently out with a thumb injury). Collison was rumored to the Clippers as well, and Doc Rivers can always find a way to use more guard depth.
Collison, however, seems at peace with his decision. If he wanted to return, he would have done it last summer for 10 figures a season, not for the minimum in January.