Kobe Bryant, can this Laker team make the playoffs? “Of course it can. Absolutely.”

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Kobe Bryant’s confidence is legendary.

So when Yahoo Sports’ Marc Spears asked this question, he had to know the answer.

With Kobe back, a few solid veterans such as Brandon Bass and Lou Williams, plus young stars like D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, can this Lakers team make the playoffs in a brutal Western Conference?

“Of course it can. Absolutely. We have talented players in their respective positions. We have some really young players. How exactly will the pieces of the puzzle fit? We really don’t know. We are going to [training] camp trying to piece this together just like every other team does. We have to figure out what our strengths are, figure out what our weaknesses are. And every time we step on the court we are going to try to hide our weaknesses and step up to our strengths.”

What did you expect him to say?

He’s wrong, but what did you expect him to say? It’s what GM Mitch Kupchak said as well.

I can hear the comments from the blind faith in Kobe/Lakers fans now, “everyone has doubted Kobe his entire career, he has proved everybody wrong. He will do it again.” That nobody believed in Kobe is a myth in the first place, but even he can’t overcome these hurdles.

Lakers won 21 games last season, and last season it took 45 wins to make the playoffs in the West — and that number likely goes up next season. The Lakers will be improved, but 24 games improved? Have you seen the West?

There are a lot of questions to answer and a lot of development that has to happen for these Lakers. Russell may develop into a quality point guard one day, but he’s a rookie with a steep learning curve (and he showed how steep at Summer League). Randle needs to diversify his offensive game. Clarkson is still growing and will have to work more off the ball. There are new players to fit in the mix with Bass, Williams and Roy Hibbert.

The real question is defense, the Lakers were terrible last season and likely not much improved this year. Hibbert was a rock-solid defensive anchor a couple of years ago in Indiana, but on a team with quality perimeter defenders (Paul George, Goerge Hill) who funneled drives right to him and allowed him to use his size. The Lakers lack those kinds of perimeter defenders, plus Hibbert has to show he can recognize plays and move in the same way he used to.

The bottom line is you look at the playoffs in the West and see the Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Rockets, Thunder (with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back), Grizzlies and Pelicans are locks. That’s seven of the eight seeds. Which leaves the Lakers trying to beat out an improved Jazz team, the Mavericks, Suns, Trail Blazers, and potentially the Kings for that one final playoff spot.

Sorry Kobe, but the 36 wins the Lakers will rack up next season will not be enough.

Paul George hits game winner, lifts Thunder past 76ers 117-115

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Paul George converted a four-point play with 5.1 seconds left, sending Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder to a wild 117-115 victory over Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.

George’s clutch shot capped a wild finish that included another memorable exchange with Westbrook and Embiid. Westbrook hit the floor out of bounds under the basket after a foul by Embiid late in the game, and Westbrook fouled out with 14.9 seconds remaining after he got Embiid while shooting a 3-pointer.

Embiid made all three foul shots, tying it at 113, and Jimmy Butler‘s driving layup put Philadelphia in front with 6.9 seconds to go. But George drained a 3 while being fouled by Butler and made the foul shot.

Philadelphia had one last chance, but Butler missed a 3-point attempt in the final seconds. The 76ers have lost 19 in a row to the Thunder.

George finished with 31 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals. Westbrook had 21 points, 10 rebounds and six assists for Oklahoma City, and reserve Dennis Schroder also scored 21 points.

The Thunder had dropped five of six, including a 138-128 overtime loss against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night.

Embiid, who was a game-time decision because of back tightness, had 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists. JJ Redick scored 22 points for Philadelphia, and Ben Simmons finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists.

Oklahoma City led by as many as 16 points in the first quarter, but Philadelphia rallied in the second and trailed 59-56 at the break.

 

Rumor: Suns, Magic have inquired about Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina

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Where do the Knicks stand on Frank Ntilikina, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft (taken ahead of Dennis Smith Jr. Zach Collins, and Donovan Mitchell)?

This should tell you all you need to know: The Denver Nuggets decided to cast Emmanuel Mudiay aside and the Knicks traded for him and instantly Mudiay jumped Ntilikina on the depth chart.

Ntilikina has played good defense but unimpressive offense for the Knicks this season and there is a thought from other teams around the league they may try to trade the young European.

A few teams are interested, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, but — shocker! — there may be a split in the front office about what to do between president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry.

Despite the Knicks’ clear lack of confidence in Ntilikina, teams have inquired about the 20-year-old, with the Magic and Suns expressing interest, according to a source. And this is where it gets interesting. There seems to be a debate within the Knicks on whether to deal Ntilikina. He was drafted by Mills and has supporters in the front office. But, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, Perry, who took the job after Ntilikina was drafted, recently approached the Atlanta Hawks to gauge whether the team was interested in dealing for the guard (Hawks have Trae Young and weren’t interested).

The Suns and Magic both desperately need point guards. However, neither are offering much in trades knowing that come free agency next July there will be better, more established targets — D'Angelo Russell, Terry Rozier, among others.

Ntilikina is a good perimeter defender whose skills could be developed in the right situation into a rotation point guard. Probably. But because the offers will be lowball, the Knicks would essentially just be dumping the No. 8 pick of a season ago, a guy who is only 20 years old. That would be a mistake — if the Knicks can’t get decent value back, keep Ntilikina and try to develop him themselves. Point guards take longer to come around in the NBA, maybe Ntilikina will develop into a player the Knicks want to keep.

But the rumors are out there and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Markelle Fultz returns to Philadelphia to do shoulder rehab with team

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Markelle Fultz is back with the 76ers.

Not in uniform for games, but he is back from Los Angeles and in Philadelphia working out with the team to recover from thoracic outlet syndrome, according to multiple reports. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story, then Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia confirmed it.

Fultz was in the arena for the Sixers game Saturday against the Thunder on national television (though not suited up to play).

There is no timetable for Fultz’s return, although his agent has said he expects Fultz to be back on the court this season. Whether that would be with the Sixers is another question, teams have called about the availability of the No. 1 pick from the 2017 NBA Draft, but the offers have been so lowball that none of them have been seriously considered by Philadelphia.

After consulting with a number of specialists just a few weeks into the season (and just after the Jimmy Butler trade), the 20-year-old Fultz was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a pinching of the nerve through the collarbone area. Since December he has been in Los Angeles is doing physical therapy to relieve the issue.

Fultz has returned to Philadelphia and is continuing that therapy.

 

Report: Rockets trying to trade Carmelo Anthony, likely to waive Nunnally to create roster spot

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To bring in some front line depth in the form of Kenneth Faried Monday, the Houston Rockets first have to clear a roster spot.

That led to a lot of speculation it could be Carmelo Anthony who is let go, he remains on the roster but not with the team, in a kind of limbo while the Rockets and ‘Melo’s agent look for a landing spot. (He reportedly has several options and will choose one before the trade deadline, but if he really liked any of those options he would have already taken them rather than waiting for a better offer.)

The Rockets are “aggressively” trying to trade Anthony and find him a new home before Monday, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported. However, James Nunnally is the most likely guy out, he was just signed to a 10-day contract.

If the Rockets haven’t waived ‘Melo yet, they’re not going to do it now.

Houston GM Daryl Morey is also working the phone lines to find wing depth to add to the Rockets’ roster. While James Harden‘s historic streak has carried the Rockets back into the playoff picture in the West, this is not the same Houston team that was a threat to the Warriors a season ago. Morey’s off-season gambles — including Anthony — have not panned out, and he is now trying to correct them.