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51 Questions: Will Lakers management be patient while rebuilding with youth?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season. Today:

Will Lakers management be patient while rebuilding with youth?

As he was doing interviews before being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last weekend, former Laker and current TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal summed up what many people believe about the post-Kobe Lakers this season:

“They’re definitely going to be exciting, but I don’t see them being a contender for a while. I mean, they’ve still got to go up against Golden State in the West, they’ve got to go up against OKC, still got to go up against Cleveland, the Rockets. So they have a long way to go to be a contender.Every now and then they’ll make some noise and get the people in the Staples Center excited.”

The Lakers have a young core with a lot of promise. D'Angelo Russell will take a step forward next season off a rookie campaign where he averaged 13.2 points per game and 3.3 assists per game, shot 35.1 percent from three, and had a PER of 13.2. More importantly, he improved over the course of the season — his PER for the month of February was 18.8.

Russell played in Summer League last July in large part to develop chemistry with Brandon Ingram, the Lakers new No. 2 pick. The lanky forward flashed the skills — good handles, face-up shooting game, smooth stroke — that intrigued the Lakers and made him the clear choice for them in the draft. He just needs to polish those skills and get stronger.

Then there is Jordan Clarkson, the combo guard playing the two who is working on the skills to play that role (he needs a more consistent jumper, for example). He gives the Lakers another ball handler and options for initiating the offense. After him, the Lakers have Larry Nance Jr. — a guy other coaches regularly bring up when talking about the Lakers’ core — and Julius Randle, two quality young forwards who have shown flashes of potential. Randle, in particular, has the athleticism to be a quality four in the NBA if he can develop his shot and his off-hand.

Put them all together with a young coach who the young players relate to and who wants to play up-tempo in Luke Walton, and there is real potential. The Lakers have hope for the future. It’s going to take a couple of years to develop into the kind of foundational core that will win enough games to think playoffs — and, more importantly, lure top free agents — but you can see that path in front of the Lakers. A good goal for the Lakers this season is to win more than 30 games, which is a leap from the franchise low of 17 a year ago. Then in two seasons they be in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West. It’s like what happened in Boston, where it took a few years for their solid young core and quality coach to win enough that a free agent such as Al Horford would jump on board.

The Lakers just need to be patient and let the players develop.

The question is will Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak let that happen?

Remember that Jim Buss, the man his father left in charge of the basketball side of the Lakers’ franchise, said back in 2014 he would have the Lakers back to “contending” in three or four seasons or he would step down. Contending has come to mean at least getting into the second round. There is some disagreement about exactly when Jim Buss’ deadline falls, but the other Buss siblings have reportedly lost faith in his ability to do the job and are pushing for a change sooner rather than later.

The fear is that push forces Buss to make decisions thinking only about wins and the short term. He wouldn’t be the first NBA executive to make poor long-term decisions to save his job in the short run.

Buss seemed to think rebuilding the Lakers would be easier and quicker than it is, that free agents would just flock to the team because of the brand and because of the city. That’s not the way the modern NBA works. The reality was clear this summer: The Lakers couldn’t even get a courtesy meeting with free agent Kevin Durant. The age of social media and the current NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement have changed the dynamic for big market teams, lessening their advantages with free agents. The Lakers can’t just skim off the cream of the crop and rebuild on the fly anymore. Players will go where the money is regardless of market, and they will go where they will win.

The Lakers are a few years away from being one of those teams.

There are multiple pressures on the Lakers to win sooner rather than later. There is Jim Buss’ deadline — he’d like to keep his job, but that means winning. There is the pressure to fill the seats on game nights and keep team sponsors in a post-Kobe Bryant era. And there are the local television ratings, which have slipped the past couple of seasons — and part of that massive Lakers’ rights deal with Time Warner Cable is ratings based (as ratings slip, the Lakers get less money).

On top of all that Lakers fans, spoiled by decades of success, are not always the most patient and understanding of fan bases. To put it kindly.

Could all of those pressures lead to rash decisions? Trades that short circuit the future in hopes of a few more wins now?

Possibly.

But not likely.

Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak are Lakers’ lifers — even if Buss gave up his power he’d still have a large ownership stake in the team — and they certainly see the potential for these Lakers. They are smart, they see the path in front of the team, and they know that the climb to the top is gradual. Of course, if a “Godfather” trade falls in their lap (one they can’t refuse) then they take it, but that is highly unlikely in today’s NBA climate. Maybe some big names become available later this season or into next summer, but the Lakers shouldn’t give away too much of a promising young core to get a DeMarcus Cousins (not currently available) or someone of that ilk. It’s that young core that would make a top player want to stay with the Lakers in the first place, or for a free agent to come to L.A.

The Lakers are on a path that could lead to a return to the upper echelons of the NBA, but it’s going to take years. It’s going to take patience, both from fans and management. They can’t let a combination of pride and pressure force them off that path for a quick fix and a couple of extra wins.

That is the path to long-term mediocrity.

 

 

Joseph Tsai to buy rest of Nets, Barclays Arena for $3.4 billion

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NEW YORK — Joe Tsai has agreed to buy the remaining 51 percent of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center from Mikhail Prokhorov in deals that two people with knowledge of the details say are worth about $3.4 billion.

Terms were not disclosed Friday, but the people told The Associated Press that Tsai is paying about $2.35 billion for the Nets – a record for a U.S. pro sports franchise – and nearly $1 billion in a separate transaction for the arena. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the transactions have not yet been completed.

Tsai is the co-founder and executive vice president of the Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce giant. He already had purchased a 49 percent stake in the team from Prokhorov in 2018, with the option to become controlling owner in four years.

Instead, he pushed up that timeline for full ownership of a team on the rise after signing superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in July.

Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire, became the NBA’s first non-North American owner in 2010 and oversaw the Nets’ move from New Jersey to Brooklyn two years later. He spent big in the first couple years after the move in a quest to chase a championship, but the team soon became one of the worst in the NBA before rallying to return to the playoffs last season.

“It has been an honor and a joy to open Barclays Center, bring the Nets to Brooklyn, and watch them grow strong roots in the community while cultivating global appeal,” Prokhorov said in a statement. “The team is in a better place today than ever before and I know that Joe will build on that success, while continuing to deliver the guest experience at Barclays Center that our fans, employees, and colleagues in the industry enjoy.”

The deal is expected to be completed by the end of September and is subject to approval by the NBA’s Board of Governors.

That would put Tsai, a native of Taiwan, in full control of the team by the time the Nets head to China to play two exhibition games against the Los Angeles Lakers in October. That comes at the start of a season of renewed excitement for the Nets, who just three seasons ago won an NBA-worst 20 games but are set to make a big move up the standings after landing two of the best players on the market when free agency opened.

“I’ve had the opportunity to witness up close the Brooklyn Nets rebuild that Mikhail started a few years ago. He hired a front office and coaching staff focused on player development, he supported the organization with all his resources, and he refused to tank,” Tsai said. “I will be the beneficiary of Mikhail’s vision, which put the Nets in a great position to compete, and for which I am incredibly grateful.”

Brett Yormark, the CEO of BSE Global, which manages the team and the arena, will oversee the transition before leaving for a new role.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder tells Donovan Mitchell to ‘be a sponge’ around Gregg Popovich

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While other players continue to pull out of the USA Basketball roster — De'Aaron Fox was the latest, and P.J. Tucker before him — Utah’s Donovan Mitchell has been outspoken in his commitment to the team.

“Me, I’m 22, some guys are older and got to rest their bodies and I understand that…” Mitchell said Friday night after Team USA’s exhibition game win over Spain. “For me, I’ve never been part of USA Basketball and I’m honored to be here, I’m honored to have this privilege to go out and compete.”

A lot of players have left — or just not put their names in the hat in the first place — saying they wanted to focus on preparing for the regular season, especially players in the Western Conference, which is deep with outstanding teams. The Utah Jazz, now with Mike Conley at the point, are one of those teams with high expectations.

Mitchell, however, has the full backing of his coach Quin Snyder to stay with Team USA and learn from Gregg Popovich, as Snyder told Marc Stein of the New York Times.

“Both Donovan and I have been excited for this opportunity, not just the chance to compete for his country but to play for Pop. I think he has an appreciation for the fact that he’s playing for the greatest coach that’s ever coached…

“Just try to throw yourself completely into it,” Snyder said he told Mitchell. “And try to communicate with Coach as much as you can. Be a sponge.”

Popovich has had an impact on the young players on the roster. For example, there’s more maturity to Kyle Kuzma‘s game, and Popovich recognized him on the court Friday night when Kuzma made a couple of smart plays against Spain.

Just having different coaching voices — not just Popovich but his assistants Steve Kerr, Lloyd Pierce, and Villanova’s Jay Wright — can help a young player. The message may be consistent, but said in a different way, one that better gets through to the player. Styles matter.

Mitchell led Team USA in scoring against Spain with 13, but Snyder and Jazz fans are hoping for more. Not just gold at the World Cup in China starting Sept. 1, but that Mitchell comes back energized and with a broadened game after having been a sponge next to Popovich.

Marcus Smart reportedly cleared to play for Team USA

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Through two weeks of training camp, first in Las Vegas then in Los Angeles, through one intrasquad scrimmage and one exhibition game, Marcus Smart has sat in street clothes.

The Celtics guard has a calf injury that has sidelined him. On Thursday in Los Angeles he took part in the shooting parts of practice during training camp, but not the full-contact scrimmages against the select team. All he could really do was this.

Friday night he never got out of his warmups and did not play against Spain, but he did say on the broadcast he would be back.

Turns out, he was cleared to be back the next day according to Mark Stein of the New York Times.

This takes away a little of the sting of De'Aaron Fox deciding to withdraw from the team just before it left on Saturday for Australia.

It also means four Celtics are on the USA roster: Smart, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. USA assistant coach Steve Kerr jokingly said to me last week he asked Brad Stevens for a thank you gift for running Celtics mini-camp.

Smart is one of the 13 players headed down under for a series of tune-up games before the World Cup (against Australia and Canada). If he’s fully healthy enough to go, Smart is a lock to make the roster because of his physical perimeter defense and ability to shoot the three (36 percent last season in the NBA, and the international line is a little closer in). He likely would come off the bench at the two behind Donovan Mitchell.

Bill Walton broadcast White Sox vs. Angels game and was nothing short of brilliant

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Bill Walton is brilliant.

The Hall of Fame hippie and big man was in the broadcast booth Friday night — not for basketball, but for the White Sox vs. Angels MLB game. Walton loves baseball even if his understanding of the sport is… unconventional.

I want Bill Walton to narrate my life.

The world missed him while he battled serious back issues, it’s so good to have him out and around and being himself again.