ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

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Last season: The Lakers finished with a record of just 27 wins against 55 losses, and the primary reason for that can be summed up with one word: injuries. L.A. was decimated by them at all positions for most of the year, and saw its players miss an absurd total of 319 games due to them — among the highest recorded in the past 30 years. The team wasn’t going to contend for a title with a roster that dropped off significantly from a talent perspective once you got past Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash. But contending for a spot in the playoffs might have been a possibility, had Bryant and Nash managed to appear in more than 21 combined games.

Signature highlight from last season: It was tempting to run this one of Nick Young prematurely celebrating a three-pointer that he ultimately missed, because that’s really the kind of season it was in Los Angeles — embarrassing by the franchise’s lofty standards. But early in the year, before the injuries spun out of control and as the pieces began to fit into place, the Lakers came away with a victory in Houston over a much more talented Rockets team on a three-pointer near the end of regulation from Steve Blake — who was traded to the Warriors later in the season.

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Lakers season:

Kobe Bryant: It isn’t only the health of Kobe Bryant, who appeared in just six games for the Lakers last season, that will determine the team’s fate in the upcoming campaign. Merely staying on the court won’t be enough, as the roster construction faces severe challenges on both ends of the floor. In order for L.A. to compete most nights, it will need Bryant to return to an All-Star level, scoring on a consistent yet efficient basis, while being a focal point offensively who can facilitate things on the possessions where he isn’t the one taking the shots. It may be too much to ask at this stage of Bryant’s career to do so much, and once again, the health concern is real after the two major injuries he’s suffered in the last two seasons. But if he can simply be the one who holds it all together, there’s a slim chance this team could exceed expectations.

Byron Scott: L.A. hired Scott as head coach this offseason, after an extensive search that included interviews with candidates that seemed far better suited to lead the team into its long-term future. The reasons given were dubious at best, especially the one about wanting a head coach with a defensive-minded reputation. Scott’s Cavaliers teams, where he coached most recently, were historically bad on the defensive end of the floor, and improved immediately the season after he was gone with Mike Brown hired as his replacement in Cleveland — an uninspiring fact, to say the least. Scott was hired for his ties to the organization, to be someone who understands the championship culture and to remind fans of the team’s storied past. But his decisions thus far have been cause for concern, and coaching as much as anything could be the team’s downfall if the thin level of talent in place isn’t properly utilized.

Defense: The Lakers were 28th in defensive efficiency last season, and despite Scott’s wishes, there isn’t much hope that the team is in a position to greatly improve its ranking. Boozer’s defense has been the biggest weakness in his game, and was exposed even more playing alongside such committed defenders while with the Bulls. Nash has always struggled to contain the other team’s guards, and Bryant, who has historically been able to defend extremely well when focusing his attention there, has been less interested in doing so in recent seasons. With an offense expected to struggle (especially if L.A. chases inefficient midrange shots more than it does three-pointers and shots at the basket), the Lakers aren’t going to be able to outscore very many opponents. Defense will be an important determining factor in the team’s quest for victories, and given the personnel in place, that shouldn’t exactly inspire an outlook here that’s overly-optimistic.

Why you should watch: Kobe Bryant essentially missed all of last season, and is one of the game’s all-time greatest players. He has two years remaining on his contract with the Lakers, and then will likely disappear from the NBA landscape forever. It’s worth tuning in to see the highlights he can still provide, even on a Lakers team that isn’t expected to be very good this season. Oh, and the same goes for Steve Nash, who is similarly in the twilight of his career, and is likely done after this season.

Prediction: If everything were to go perfectly for the Lakers this season, it would still be tough to envision a win total of more than 45 games — and even then, that probably wouldn’t be enough to reach the postseason in a traditionally loaded Western Conference. What’s far more likely is that Bryant and Nash miss time at some point due to injury (whether major or minor), and that the roster simply doesn’t have enough from a talent perspective to be able to compete on a nightly basis. A total of 35 wins and another trip to the Draft Lottery feels about right.

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.

Klay Thompson: ‘That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.’

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Stephen Curry wants to go to Tokyo and play for Team USA next summer. So does Draymond Green.

How about three Warriors?

If Klay Thompson is healthy, he wants to play in the Olympics next summer he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

“I would love to play (for) Team USA,” Thompson said. “That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.”

The biggest question for Thompson’s candidacy will be health. He is expected to be out until at least after the All-Star break recovering from the ACL he tore during the Finals last season. He could miss all of next season. That said, if he is healthy he would be a perfect fit for the international game — he is a dangerous three-point shooter, can handle the ball when needed, and is an outstanding perimeter defender. Team USA could use guys like that.

It won’t just be the big-name Warriors players who will want to step up next summer.

After USA Basketball finished seventh at this summer’s World Cup in China — due mostly to numerous top players choosing not to play for their nation this summer — it was expected that a wave of elite players will sign up for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Players are doing this less because revenge or re-establishing the USA’s basketball dominance — although expect that to be the narrative they pitch — and more about timing. FIBA, in its “infinite wisdom,” decided to move the World Cup from its usual spot, which would have been 2018, to 2019. Playing for USA Basketball is a 6-8 week summer commitment, and now the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years. That left a lot of elite NBA players — and not just for Team USA — looking at the calendar and feeling they had to choose one or the other. And for American players, the Olympics will almost always win that fight.

USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said he is going to remember who was willing to make the sacrifice to come this summer when it comes time to choosing an Olympic team. That may happen with a couple of roster spots, but he’s not turning elite talent away, either.

And all three of those Warriors would be the kind of elite players Team USA will want in Tokyo. If Thompson is healthy enough to go, expect him to pack his bags for Tokyo.