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.

Rudy Gobert on dynamic with Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell: ‘I’m the a—hole’

Jazz stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell
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Rudy Gobert is the Jazz’s best player.

Donovan Mitchell is the Jazz’s biggest star.

That situation naturally creates tension. Gobert and Mitchell testing positive for coronavirus exacerbated it.

Mitchell was upset with Gobert, whose reckless actions made him more likely to contract and spread coronavirus. Now, Mitchell sounds ready to move on.

But other issues remain.

Mitchell quickly became Utah’s go-to offensive player. He’s a sensational scorer with a magnetic personality and electrifying dunks. But he’s still developing as a playmaker, which can frustrate Gobert.

Most famously, Gobert cried when discussing his All-Star snub last year. Gobert plays a complementary style that can be underrated. He’s an elite defender who cleans up for his teammates. On offense, does all the little things – screening, finishing, rebounding. Yet, all that diligent screening isn’t always rewarded with passes when he gets open.

Should Mitchell pass more to Gobert? Yes. But Gobert has also let his effort slip this season when not getting touches, and that’s not the right solution, either.

Gobert, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“I understand that I’m annoying. I can be very annoying,” said Gobert, adding that he knows Mitchell’s job is difficult as the focal point of defenses. “I think maybe because he was really good really early, I’ve been very demanding and maybe in not always a positive way. Sometimes you don’t realize it.

“Like with me, people can be hard on me and I can handle it, but for some guys, it can become very frustrating. I can understand that 100 percent. Donovan has gotten better every year since he’s gotten here. I think he’s going to keep getting a lot better. It’s pretty much, I’m the a–hole.”

“If I was 12 years old, I wouldn’t want to be watching f—ing Rudy Gobert. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell. I wouldn’t want to watch Rudy Gobert get dunks and alter shots. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell cross people up and do crazy layups, crazy dunks, of course.

“I totally understand how it works, and I’m fine with it.”

There’s an endearing amount of self-awareness in these quotes.

Gobert and Mitchell have a chance to form a highly successful partnership in Utah. Winning could bond them. On the other hand, losing could push them further apart. Another potential complication: Mitchell – with all his talent and about four years younger than Gobert – will probably soon surpass Gobert as a player. Then what? How will each handle that?

The future is unpredictable, but it’s worth understanding the current relationship between Gobert and Mitchell. To do that, I highly recommend reading MacMahon’s excellent article.

Nets’ Taurean Prince tests positive for coronavirus, will sit out restart

Taurean Prince Nets
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Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Nicholas Claxton all had pre-existing injuries and were never expected to play in the NBA’s restart in Orlando. Wilson Chandler opted out of the restart to spend time with his family.  DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie both tested positive for the coronavirus and did not join the team headed to Orlando on Tuesday. That’s six players from the Nets roster not playing in the restart.

Make that seven — forward Taurean Prince tested positive for coronavirus and will sit out restart as well. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.

Prince started at the four for the Nets and averaged 12.1 points and six rebounds a game.

The Nets are free to sign a substitute player to fill in for Prince, however, that player must have fewer than three years of NBA experience. Whoever the Nets line up, it will be a drop off in quality from what Prince brought to the table.

Expect the Nets to look at big men for substitute players because they need size. Jarrett Allen is the only true center on the roster, and there are only two other players — Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa — are taller than 6’9″. Amir Johnson is one Nets’ big man target, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times.

Brooklyn enters the restart as the seven seed in the East, but just half a game up on eight seed Orlando, a team that is largely healthy and bringing its full roster. It’s likely the Nets slide back to the eight seed, but likely make the playoffs (Washington, playing without Bradley Beal or Davis Bertans, would have to make up two games on the Nets during the eight seeding games, then beat Brooklyn in a two straight play-in series games, a tall order). The Nets reward for making the playoffs? Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee.

WNBA players call for ouster of Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia senator

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA)
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NBA players showed their power by getting Donald Sterling removed as Clippers owner.

WNBA players might be having a similar moment with Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Republican U.S. Senator from Georgia.

Sterling committed incredibly harmful racist and sexist acts for years. Ironically, something far more benign – telling his girlfriend not to post pictures with black people or bring them to games – did him in. But he went too far in a time of growing sensitivity to speech.

Now, there’s even less tolerance for people saying the “wrong” thing. And Loeffler has said things lately that range from disagreeable to offensive.

The WNBA announced its plans for promoting social justice during its upcoming season:

The WNBA will begin its season in late July with a weekend of competition centered around the Black Lives Matter movement, during which teams will wear special uniforms to seek justice for the women and girls, including Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Vanessa Guillen and many more who have been the forgotten victims of police brutality and racial violence. Throughout the season, players will wear NIKE-branded warm-up shirts that display “Black Lives Matter” on the front.   Additionally, “Say Her Name” will adorn the back of the shirts.  “Black Lives Matter” will also be prominently displayed on courts during games.

In response, Kelly Loeffler wrote a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert. A portion of that letter, via Greg Bluestein and Bria Felicien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

All of us have a constitutional right to hold and to express our views. But to subscribe to a particular political agenda undermines the potential of the sport and sends a message of exclusion.

The truth is, we need less—not more politics in sports. In a time when polarizing politics is as divisive as ever, sports has the power to be a unifying antidote. And now more than ever, we should be united in our goal to remove politics from sports.

The lives of each and every African American matter, and there’s no debating the fact that there is no place for racism in our country. However, I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement, which has advocated for the defunding of police, called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure, harbored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country. I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.

Amid the recent unrest in many American cities, this movement advocated the creation of lawless autonomous zones in places like Atlanta. I denounced these zones of violence—for which I have been criticized. However, this same group fell silent over the fourth of July weekend when an 8-year-old girl was murdered under the “mob rule” that I warned about days earlier. This is not a political movement that the league should be embracing, and I emphatically oppose it.

Though I was not consulted about—nor do I agree with the League’s decision in this matter, I am proposing a common-sense recommendation to ensure we reflect the values of freedom and equality for all. I believe we should put an American flag on every jersey. Include it in our licensed apparel for players, coaches and fans.

Women’s National Basketball Players Association:

WNBA:

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert released the following statement:

“The WNBA is based on the principle of equal and fair treatment of all people and we, along with the teams and players, will continue to use our platforms to vigorously advocate for social justice.  Sen. Kelly Loeffler has not served as a Governor of the Atlanta Dream since October 2019 and is no longer involved in the day-to-day business of the team.”

That is a strong statement from the union. Several players previously criticized Loeffler, especially in the wake of a recent interview.

She was asked, “It is not every day you see people carrying long guns in big cities in America. What is happening on the streets of Atlanta this morning?” While Fox News showed armed black men, Loeffler said, “This is totally unacceptable. We cannot allow mob rule. We’re a nation of the rule of law.”

If Loeffler – a self-avowed Second Amendment advocate – were specifically denouncing legal gun carrying because the carriers were black, that’s racist, hypocritical and completely unacceptable. But it’s unclear whether Loeffler could see the images and videos as she answered. It’s also unclear whether she was answering more generally about everything happening in Atlanta.

Regardless, backlash spread.

Renee Montgomery of the Atlanta Dream:

Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm:

Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Washington Mystics:

Natasha Cloud of the Phoenix Mercury:

Layshia Clarendon of the New York Liberty:

Sydney Colson of the Chicago Sky:

There is room for legitimate debate on the issues raised in the tweets and articles they link, including gun control, abortion and the best tactics for fighting racism. Loeffler shouldn’t be forced out simply because she disagrees with some vocal players. (I suspect, in a league as large and diverse as the WNBA, some players agree with her on some of these issues.)

But Loeffler’s letter to Engelbert is particularly off-putting.

Disagreeing with some elements of the Black Lives Matter organization would be one thing. But condemning the Black Lives Matter political movement is something else. Within that movement, there are disagreements on methods and goals. The unifying thread: Believing black lives matter. That’s why Black Lives Matter, despite some extreme views, holds such mass appeal.

It’s also gross for Loeffler to use a false claim about Secoriea Turner to fit her agenda. Protesters have decried the girl’s killing.

The players who are using their platforms to promote racial justice deserve praise. Their plan is good for the WNBA. It’s good for the United the States.

The truth is there has always been politics in sports. White people can more easily ignore it, but that’s their privilege. The many black players in the WNBA still live in a country with systematic racism. Their humanity doesn’t end when they show up to work, and they shouldn’t be told to be quiet and just wear an American flag on their jerseys.

It’s telling that Loeffler’s solution to politics in sports is to put a political symbol on jerseys.

She doesn’t want politics out of sports. She wants politics she disagrees with out of sports.

Now, the WNBA will determine whether it wants her out of its sport.

 

Celtics’ Jayson Tatum on playing at Disney World: ‘Still not excited, not thrilled’

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum
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Celtics forward Jayson Tatum wasn’t going to sit out the NBA’s resumption due to injury concerns. Players like Tatum got the enhanced insurance they wanted, anyway.

But that doesn’t mean Tatum is eager to go to Disney World.

Chris Forsberg of NBC Sports Boston:

I don’t blame Tatum one bit. Players are facing tight lifestyle restrictions, including be separated from their families and friends for weeks. Coronavirus is an ever-present threat. There’s a very important protest movement sweeping the country.

Who can easily focus on basketball at a time like this?

Of course, Tatum decided the pros outweigh the cons. The money is substantial (for players collectively more so than Tatum individually, though there’s a case for all players to do their part for each other), and the Celtics have a chance to win a championship.

But before coronavirus, Tatum thought he’d get that money and title opportunity. The only new aspects are the downsides.

I appreciate Tatum’s openness about the situation. He’s certainly not alone in feeling this way.

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. It’s just the unfortunate reality of the pandemic.