LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant vs. Dwight Howard. The Lakers’ cornerstone vs. the guy who spurned the team. That’s how it was billed, that’s how it was sold on talk radio in Los Angeles. And the two men had their moment. They clearly don’t like one another.
However, maybe people should have talked more about James Harden.
He torched the Lakers in transition all night, he was draining threes, he was hitting step backs over Kobe, he was posting up Ronnie Price, he was slashing into the lane, he was basically doing whatever he wanted on the way to 32 points on 17 shots (he got to the line 16 times). When the Lakers made a third quarter push to cut the lead of a blowout game down to 7, Harden got a big and-1 on Kobe Bryant to stem the tide and restore order.
That led the Rockets to a relatively easy 108-90 win over the Lakers in the season opener for both teams.
This was a game overshadowed by a tibia fracture to promising Lakers rookie Julius Randle, who went down in the fourth quarter. He was taken to the hospital where surgery is likely. While no timeline for his return has been given, think in terms of months, this is a weight-bearing bone.
After the game that injury put a damper on things… and the Lakers were already pretty down after a rough first game.
“They’re a good basketball team and now we know we’re a ways away,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said after the game.
Particuarly defensively. Houston was able to get the ball inside, posting up Howard a few times but mostly from the slashing of Patrick Beverley and Harden. Then they either finished or kicked out (and made an extra pass) to get guys open looks at the arc. Look at it this way — only 3.7 percent of the Rockets points came on midrange shots, the least efficient shots in the game. They got their points at the free throw line, in the paint or at the arc — Trevor Ariza made five buckets all night and all of them came on uncontested three pointers (according to Sports VU data from the game).
“I thought we played really well tonight, and there are things we can really build on and learn,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.
The very efficient Rockets offense scored 31 points on 23 possessions in the first quarter and finished the game with a 113.7 offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions). Terrence Jones had 16 points and 13 rebounds for the Rockets, Howard had 13 points (on 3-of-5 shooting) and 11 rebounds.
Lakers fans — and their coaching staff — are left scouring the film trying to find bright spots. As a team Los Angeles shot 35.4 percent, with a true percentage of 37.3 (compared to 50.7 for the Rockets).
One bright spot is Kobe Bryant looked about as good as one might have hoped after missing a season and having two major surgeries. He had 19 points to lead the Lakers, but he took 17 shots to get there as Trevor Ariza did a solid job on him all night.
Jeremy Lin struggled in the first half with Patrick Beverley on him. Kobe had a team-high 19 points but on 6-of-17 shooting. Ed Davis played well again (as he did in preseason). Carlos Boozer added the empty 17 points, although like with his time in Chicago it felt fairly meaningless. The Lakers also showed a stretch of better, more energized play in the third quarter, they just couldn’t sustain it.
For the Rockets, it was a win and they will take it, no matter how pretty.
For the Lakers… well, things have to get better, right?
Kawhi Leonard leaving NBA-champion Raptors would be unlike anything we’ve ever seen
But they can be heartened – or maybe eventually heartbroken –a by this: Stars almost never switched teams immediately following a title.
Before this year, there have been…
49 Finals MVPs who won a championship. None switched teams that offseason.
147 All-Stars who won a championship. None switched teams that offseason.
124 All-NBA players who won a championship. Only one switched teams that offseason.
In 1998, Scottie Pippen got signed-and-traded from the Bulls to the Rockets. He was neither an All-Star nor Finals MVP that year, but he made the All-NBA third team. After leaving Chicago, he never achieved any of those accolades.
Leonard checked all three boxes this season – Finals MVP, All-NBA, All-Star. He looks poised to take over as the NBA’s best player for the next few several years.
It’d be unprecedented for someone like him to bolt.
Even while missing 22 games amid load management and minor injury, Leonard posted 9.5 win shares last season.
Here’s how Leonard compares to the players with the most win shares in a title-winning season who began play elsewhere the following year:
Of course, Leonard isn’t bound by history. He’ll make his own decision. If he wants to leave the Raptors for the Clippers, Knicks or anyone else, he can.
But players just usually stick with a champion. LeBron James said he might have re-signed with the Heat if they won the 2014 title. Kyrie Irving was unhappy after the Cavaliers’ 2016 championship but didn’t request a trade until they lost in the 2017 NBA Finals. Shaq and Kobe coexisted peacefully enough until the Lakers stopped winning titles.
It’s just hard to leave a team that has proven its ability to win a championship, and Leonard would have that in Toronto.
Celtics president Danny Ainge called restructuring Al Horford‘s contract status – which would involve the center declining his $30,123,015 player option then re-signing for a lower starting salary but more total compensation in a multi-year deal – a priority.
This is either a step toward that or a step toward Boston, with Kyrie Irving seemingly exiting, losing multiple stars this summer.
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:
Boston Celtics center Al Horford will not exercise the $30.1M option on his 2019-20 contract and become an unrestricted free agent, league sources tell ESPN. Horford and the Celtics both have interest in working toward a new deal in July, sources tell ESPN.
If they renounce all their free agents, the Celtics would project to have about $32 million in cap space. That’d be about enough for a max player with fewer than 10 years experience, and Boston would get the room exception (projected to be about $5 million)
Or the Celtics could use Bird Rights to re-sign Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris. That route would come with a mid-level exception, either the non-taxpayer (projected to be about $9 million) or taxpayer (projected to be about $6 million).
Horford could determine Boston’s path. If the 33-year-old wants to re-sign, that’d probably consume most of the Celtics’ cap space. If he sees Irving leaving and wants to chase a title elsewhere, Boston could reset around Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and three first-round picks in Thursday’s draft.
The Celtics could bring back Rozier, who’ll be a restricted free agent, in either scenario. But if Horford departs, that’d at least open the door to pursue an outside point guard – like D'Angelo Russell or Malcolm Brogdon – to replace Irving.
Report: Kyrie Irving has ‘ghosted’ Celtics as free agency approaches
The strangest part of the Irving situation right now is that it appears he has essentially ghosted on the Celtics. The people within the organization I have spoken with have made it clear that they have had little, if any, communication with Irving in recent weeks.
Irving is the prize. He’s not interviewing for jobs. Employers are chasing him. By becoming one of the best basketball players in the world, Irving has earned the power to act however he wants in this situation.
The season is over. If Irving wants space, he’s entitled to it.
Maybe it’s because he’s being a jerk. Maybe it’s because telling Boston he wants to leave isn’t an easy message to deliver.
Either way, Irving can proceed as he sees fit. The Celtics will still offer him a max contract if he wants to stay.
This is the same tact he reportedly took on his way out of Cleveland. So, it’s believable he’s behaving this way again.
But we’ve also repeatedly seen players smeared on their way out the door. Whether or not it’s accurate, this report will reflect poorly on Irving in many circles. So, in light of recent history, have at least a little skepticism for this depiction of Irving.
2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Ja Morant is the future of the point guard position
Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.
The trajectory that Zion Williamson and Ja Morant have taken to get to the point where they are projected to be the top two picks in the NBA draft could not be more different.
Four years ago, they were playing on the same, small AAU team out of South Carolina. From there, Zion blew up, becoming a viral sensation thanks to his athletic exploits, having his jersey get worn by Drake when he was still a high school junior and spending the majority of his time in the high school ranks as a top-five talent in his recruiting class.
Morant, on the other hand, was more or less a no-name prospect into the summer before his senior year. He eventually became a popular mid-major target, and he even received a scholarship offer from in-state South Carolina. He was hardly unknown, but he was miles away from being someone considered to be a potential franchise-changing talent at the NBA level.
As it stands today, the thing that both Zion and Ja have in common — besides the two most recognizable first names — is an otherworldly level of explosiveness that has both ratcheted up their hype and buried the lede. The reason Williamson is the most exciting prospect to come out of the college ranks since Anthony Davis is because of his ability to play the point and the five, all at the same time. He’s Draymond Green, only if he was injected with NOS from Dominic Toretto.
Morant’s athleticism rivals Williamson’s. Blessed with a 44 inch vertical, Morant’s motto this season was “jump with me if you want to go viral,” and that couldn’t have been more accurate. He spent more time on SportsCenter this season than every Ohio Valley Conference player before him combined, something that was highlighted by this dunk:
Welp, Ja Morant has won the award for Dunk of the Year.
And that explosiveness matters, I would never try to say otherwise. Dunking over weakside defenders in the NBA is going to be more difficult than when playing at UT Martin, but being able to elevate the way Morant elevates will help him transition to the next level. His quick-twitch athleticism also manifests in his ability to make plays in the halfcourt, where his ability to change speeds — and to go from a standstill to top speed — is what allows scouts to be able to project Morant as a player that can create offense against set NBA defenses. For a player who did so much of his damage at the college level in transition, that’s a big deal.
Morant’s physical tools makes it very easy to see him as another De'Aaron Fox. They’re both about 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, and Fox just wrapped up his second season in the NBA with averages of 17.3 points, 7.3 assists and 3.8 boards.
But simply focusing on Morant’s athletic ability is to ignore what he does best: Pass.
Because while Morant did average 24.5 points and 5.7 boards while shooting 36 percent from three, perhaps what is most impressive about his sophomore season with the Racers is that he led all of college basketball in assists at 10.0 per game, just like Lonzo Ball led the nation in assists in 2017 and Trae Young did in 2018.
I mention both of those guys for a reason. Morant does not have the same hit-ahead ability in transition that Ball does, but Morant’s vision in the open floor and ability to make long, accurate passes in the open floor is one of the things that he does best. He also thrives in early-offense, where his And-1 Mixtape handle allows him to keep his dribble alive and probe opposing defenses. Because he is such a threat as a scorer, defenses would then collapse, which is when Morant’s ability as a dump-off passer and a lob-thrower comes into effect.
And that’s not even what he does best as a passer, because where he really shines is in the halfcourt and working off of ball-screens. Morant’s basketball IQ is the most underrated part of his game. He knows how defenses are going to defend him. He knows how to use his eyes to move weakside defenders. He knows where the tag is coming from, and whether the shooter in the far side corner or the roll-man will be open. This is where that Trae Young comparison comes into play, because reading defenses is where Young thrived while at Oklahoma.
The best way to describe Morant’s ability as a passer is that he not only knows when and where his teammates are going to come open, but he has the ability to find a way to make the pass that will get them an open shot. Morant is right-handed, but he will, at times, look like a left-handed player because of how often he makes bullet, live-dribble passes with just his left. He makes reads, and passes, that few point guards in the NBA today can make.
That passing is what makes all the difference, and as much as his athleticism or ability as a scorer, it’s the reason why he can be viewed as a player with the potential to be a franchise-changing point guard in the same stratosphere as the likes of Russell Westbrook and John Wall.
Now, Morant does have some flaws, and they are quite notable and relevant.
For starters, he is of a slight build, which is less than ideal. He is not going to be able to bounce off of contact in the NBA the same way he did in the OVC, and in a league where switchability is a priority at the highest-level, he is going to be targeted. Opposing coaches are going to target him by trying to force switches the same way that Nick Nurse did with Steph Curry in the finals. That is going to be an issue if he can’t add some weight and strength, particularly because he has not been a consistently great defender to date. Some of that can be attributed to the load that he was asked to carry offensively, and there is reason to believe that Morant’s athleticism, anticipation and quick hands will translate to being an above-average defender in the NBA.
Morant can also be a bit sloppy. He averaged more than five turnovers per game, and while some of that is strictly a result of workload and defensive attention, he also had a habit of trying to force passes that weren’t there.
But the biggest question mark, and what is going to determine his ceiling more than just about anything else, will be how well his jumper comes along. Morant shot 36.3 percent from three this past season, but that number drops to just 33.6 percent if his 7-for-8 shooting from three in the NCAA tournament is factored out.
Put another way, as good as Morant was this past season, there is still plenty of room for him to grow moving forward.
And in a league where ball-dominant lead guards that thrive in ball-screens is the norm, Morant is a player with quite a bit of value in the long-term.