51Q: The Lakers will entertain, will they be good?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

The Lakers will be improved, but will they be any good?

Plenty of NBA fans (not to mention people around the league) are in the schadenfreude camp of enjoying the Lakers’ struggles.

But I can give you 19 reasons even those “haters” want the Lakers to be better this season — that’s the number of times they are in a nationally televised game. Seventh most in the league. The same number as the Houston Rockets, and more than Anthony Davis’ Pelicans, the Heat, and the Grizzlies. Even more than the Knicks and Mavericks combined.

You’re going to have to watch them. You want them to be at least entertaining.

And they will be.

The Lakers have assembled some of the best isolation loving, ball dominating, wing gunners the league has to offer — Kobe Bryant, Lou Williams, and Nick Young. Considering his Summer League performance, Jordan Clarkson seems to want to join that group, too. Beyond them, there are some legitimate young players worth watching in D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle (Clarkson wants to be in this group, too).

No doubt the Lakers have some offensive firepower — they are fearlessly going to fire away from whatever old-school sets Byron Scott draws up (this roster is fairly well suited to that style). Kobe is not going to go quietly into that good night. The Lakers are going to put up some points. They will entertain.

But will they be any good?

No.

To be fair, the real answer to that question depends on how you choose to define “good.” If you’re a smart Lakers fan and define that as “better than last season” and “the young players show signs of growth and development” then the answer should be yes.

These Lakers will be better than the 21-win, franchise-worst team that took the court last season. Adding veterans like Williams, Brandon Bass and Roy Hibbert will ensure that. Plus we should all hope that Kobe stays healthy, his minutes are kept in check, and he is himself again — we are witnessing the end of the career of one of the best ever to play the game and we should savor that.

However, if you’re going to define “good” as the Lakers making the playoffs — or even being in the hunt — then the answer is no. The Lakers are not going to be that good (even in the East I’d have serious doubts, but in the stacked West no way). The Lakers are not going to improve 25+ games this season, which is what it would take to sniff the postseason. They likely are 10-12 games better.

The problems will come on the defensive end, where the Lakers were 29th in the NBA last season allowing 108 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers are pointing to Hibbert being the difference on defense, providing some rim protection that has been lacking in Los Angeles since the handful of games when Andrew Bynum decided to care about basketball.

No doubt Hibbert will help the Laker defense, but not as much as some think. He is slow of foot, and in an increasingly small-ball NBA he can be exposed as you pull him away from the basket and force him to cover pick-and-rolls or guard guys out on the perimeter. If you remember the Hibbert that was a defensive force in Indiana remember this as well — that team had three high-quality perimeter defenders in Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and George Hill. Those guys played in a smart, well-executed system where they would funnel penetration to where Hibbert was already stationed, basically running ball handlers into a brick wall. The Lakers don’t have that kind of perimeter protection to help Hibbert, especially if they play the youngsters heavy minutes like they should (Kobe, at 37 and with his previous injuries, is not that guy anymore). Hibbert can be an elite rim protector, but him alone on an island in the paint doesn’t solve that many problems.

The Lakers should not be focusing on the playoffs anyway, only one question should guide every Lakers decisions this season:

How do we develop Russell, Randle and Clarkson?

The Lakers are a rebuilding team, and those three should be key parts of the future. Russell is the highest draft pick the Lakers have had since James Worthy, but by his own admission not a guy whose athleticism is going to overwhelm at this level. Russell has to beat guys with his vision, his IQ, with his mind. That’s going to take some time to develop and adjust at this level — he should improve as the season wears on, but there will be rough patches. Russell and Clarkson need to learn how to play together and share playmaking responsibilities. Randle needs to develop a diversity of offensive moves.

The Lakers learned some hard lessons this past summer about what it’s going to take to recruit the next free agent superstar to Los Angeles — they can’t just sell the city, the glamour, endorsement opportunities, and the brand anymore. That will not get it done. They need to sell basketball, too. Guys can live in Los Angeles in the off-season, and in a social media world they can reach out to fans and bring in the endorsements whether they live in Los Angeles or Oklahoma City.

But after striking out with the big names, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak did a solid job of trying to walk the line between winning more now, not being embarrassing, and making sure this team was rebuilding for the future. It’s a tough balance to find, but he did well with that mandate. The Lakers have plenty of flexibility for the future (but they will not keep their first-round pick for next season without some lottery help, it is only top three protected, and now belongs to the Sixers).

The Lakers will be better with this roster. They certainly will be entertaining with all those shooters and just one basketball.

But the Lakers will not be good yet. What matters is they take steps in that direction.

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.