Lakers begin life after Kobe with uncertainty everywhere

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) Mitch Kupchak writes the Los Angeles Lakers’ roster with a marker on a white board in his office. On Friday morning, the general manager decided it was time to formally erase Kobe Bryant.

Kupchak took an eraser to Bryant’s name. It didn’t move.

“I guess at some point, the marker just stays,” Kupchak said with a laugh.

The Lakers are trying to begin life after Bryant, but nothing about the process is easy. Kobe carried this franchise to remarkable heights, but he left it at the bottom.

“It is hard to close the book on this chapter, but it has come to the point that we have to do it,” Kupchak said. “It’s something I don’t think we’ll ever see again, if you put it all together. One player, 20 years.”

Bryant dominated the Lakers’ payroll, offense and public image for much of the past two decades, including a $25 million salary and a ravenous shot selection in his final season. The third-leading scorer in NBA history scored 60 points on 50 shots in his last game Wednesday, but the electric victory ended the Lakers’ worst season ever at 17-65.

An iconic franchise must redefine itself after Bryant’s retirement. For the first time together, Kupchak and owner Jim Buss must figure out how to build a contender while working under the Hollywood spotlight that constantly shines on this team – and without the shade provided by Kobe.

“We’ve never had this many young players on the team at the same time, and there’s a price to pay for that,” Kupchak said. “The only way to move on after a player has played 20 years is to hope you can get some young players to build around.”

Indeed, the Lakers have a core of youthful talent after drafting D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. over the past two years. If they finish the May 17 draft lottery in the top three, they will keep their pick and add another major talent in June.

Kupchak realizes the remaining Lakers wouldn’t be an immediate playoff contender in the fall, and he intends to supplement the youngsters with free-agent talent. The Lakers could sign two free agents to maximum contracts after the removal of the combined $40.5 million paid to Bryant and Roy Hibbert this season.

But the Lakers don’t have much to offer veterans outside of that money, a decent young core and this franchise’s high profile – which repelled more big names than it attracted while Bryant still was in town.

Dwight Howard spurned the Lakers in 2013, Pau Gasol followed him out the door in 2014, and no high-profile names signed up last summer. Kupchak chooses to be optimistic, hoping a couple of big-ticket free agents could be attracted to the Lakers’ mystique and promise without having to cede so much to Bryant.

“This offseason in some ways will be more difficult, and in some ways will be easier,” Kupchak said. “We do feel this year we have a lot more assets on our team than we did last year, the last two years.”

Coach Byron Scott expects to return to the Lakers next season despite presiding over the two worst years in their history. The former Lakers guard is 38-126, and the fans’ considerable displeasure has been focused largely on him.

“That’s fine,” he said. “I roll with the punches. (Fans) are not in there every day. They’re not in there in practice. They have no clue. To be honest, I’m much smarter than all of them when it comes to basketball.”

Kupchak plans to meet with Scott and Buss for lunch in a few days to discuss their options. Kupchak made no guarantees, but he clearly looks favorably on Scott’s willingness to accept a daunting job two years ago.

“I think Byron has done an excellent job under the circumstances that he’s had to deal with,” Kupchak said. “This year in particular was a difficult year for a coach to wade his way through.”

No matter how jarring this summer might be, the Lakers must move on. Even in Kupchak’s office.

When the eraser failed to remove Bryant’s name, he laughed – but then got out a spray cleaner and a cloth.

“The name is off the board,” Kupchak said.

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.

Draymond Green wants to play 4-5 more years, ideally with Warriors, not stressed about contract

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Jordan Poole got a contract extension from the Warriors this summer. So did Andrew Wiggins.

Draymond Green did not — and he punched Poole and was away from the team for a time.

All this has led to speculation about the future of Green in Golden State. He has a $27.6 million player option for next season, but he could become a free agent this summer. With the Warriors’ payroll through the roof — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are on max extensions, Poole and Wiggins just got paid, and contract extensions for Jonathan Kuminga and the rest of the young players are coming — there are questions about how long Green will be in the Bay Area.

In an open and honest interview with Marc Spears of ESPN’s Andscape, Green talked about everything from his relationship with Poole after the punch to his future. Here are a few highlights:

“I want to play another four or five more years. That would be enough for me.”

“You can look around the NBA right now. There are five guys that’s been on a team for 11 years-plus. We have three of them [along with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson]. It’s a very rare thing. There’s 470, 480 players in the NBA? There are five guys that’s been with his team for 11 years plus. That’s amazing. So, you don’t just give that away. So, absolutely I’d be interested in that.”

On rumors he wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers: “I never said that. People can say what they want. I’m also not really one to react much to what one may say. I react to things when I want to react to it. I don’t react to things just because somebody said it.”

Is he worried about his next contract: “No, not at all. I have a great agent [Rich Paul]. The best agent in the business. That’s why you align yourself with an incredible agent, because they handle the business. I play basketball. That’s what I want.”

I don’t doubt there is mutual interest in Green staying with the Warriors, the question is at what price. It’s not a max. As for the threat of him bolting, Green is still an elite defender and secondary playmaker, but it’s fair to wonder what the free agent market would look like for him. Green is not the scoring threat he once was, and his unique skill set is not a plug-and-play fit with every roster and system (does he really fit on the Lakers, for example).

The conventional wisdom around the league right now is that Green will opt into the final year of his contract with the Warriors — especially if they make another deep playoff run — because that level of money is not out there for him. That said, it only takes one owner to fall in love with the idea and send his GM out to get the deal done. The market may be there for him after all, or he may be open to the security of three or four years with another team but at a lower per-year dollar amount.

Green also talks about his relationship with Poole in the Q&A and makes it sound professional and business-like. Which is all it has to be, but it’s not the “playing with joy” model the Warriors are built upon.

 

Lakers reportedly leaning toward packaging Beverley, Nunn in trade

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While the Lakers have looked better of late winning 6-of-8 with a top-10 offense and defense in the league in that stretch, plus Anthony Davis continues to play at an All-NBA level at center.

That run — which still has Los Angeles sitting 13th in the West — came against a soft part of the schedule (three wins against the Spurs, for example), and is about to get tested with a few weeks of tougher games, starting with the suddenly healthy Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. While the Lakers have been better, nobody is watching them and thinking “contender.” Are they even a playoff team?

Which is why the Lakers are still in the market for trades. But Jovan Buha reports at The Athletic the Lakers realize moving Russell Westbrook and his $47 million may not happen, so they are focused more on a smaller deal moving Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn (with maybe a pick) to bring back quality role players to round out the roster).

The Lakers are leaning toward [a Nunn/Beverley trade] at this point, the team sources said. That would entail making a smaller move to marginally upgrade the roster while retaining the possibility of following up with a larger Westbrook deal later in the season…

Beverley ($13 million) and Nunn ($5.3 million) are both underperforming relative to their contracts. With the Lakers’ needs for additional size on the wing and a better complimentary big next to Anthony Davis, along with the roster’s glut of small guards, Beverley and/or Nunn are expendable. Packaged together, the Lakers could acquire a player or players in the $20 million range.

Trading Nunn and Beverley lines up with a couple of good options from the Lakers’ perspective. For example, the salaries work to get Bojan Bogdanovic out of Detroit, or it matches up with a deal for Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson out of San Antonio. However, neither the Pistons nor Spurs care much about adding veteran guards on expiring contracts in Nunn and Beverley, so it’s going to require the Lakers throwing in one of their first-round picks unprotected (2027 or 2029) and maybe a second-rounder to get it done. (With how well the Pacers are playing, it’s not a sure thing that a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade is still available.) The Spurs trade may be more appealing to the Lakers because Richardson and Poeltl are expiring contracts, so it doesn’t change the Lakers’ plans to use cap space to chase bigger names this offseason (Bogdanovic was recently given a two-year, $39.1 million extension).

These may not be the “move us into contender range” blockbuster Rob Pelinka and the front office hoped was out there, but either of those trades would make the Lakers better. It could move them into playoff-team status, and considering LeBron James turns 38 at the end of the month they can’t waste a year and retool next offseason.

The Lakers have made a number of miscalculations over the years, but they are all-in with this group now and have to find a way to maximize it, even if the cost is a little painful.

Khris Middleton reportedly set to return to Bucks Friday vs. Lakers

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The Milwaukee Bucks are about to get better. Likely a lot better.

Which should worry the rest of the league because the Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season: A 15-5 record with the best defense in the NBA and an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now they are about to get Khris Middleton back.

Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN. Middleton had been recovering from wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly in Milwaukee, Middleton is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense — he is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at the end of games, asked to create for himself and others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Without him so far this season, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has struggled, ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession (via Cleaning the Glass). Overall the Bucks have a middle-of-the-pack offense because of it.

That is about to change.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, having Middleton back makes the Bucks much more dangerous. Which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.