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Lakers on the brink of a breakthrough

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The Lakers have been fined for tampering two years in a row.

Magic Johnson’s banal tweets while holding a ceremonial front-office position last year barely caused a murmur. The Lakers’ Paul George pursuit, seemingly comprised of commonly accepted tactics, became a major storyline because the Pacers – and, implicitly, their legion of backers – pushed the issue.

The subtext to the differing responses: The Lakers are again striking fear in their opponents.

The Lakers aren’t back, but a savvy summer has positioned them to regain their status as behemoth. After years of being saddled by Kobe Bryant’s extension and Jim Buss’ pledge, the Lakers can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Johnson has them poised to burst out of the darkness in 2018.

For now, the Lakers added two players better (Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) and another more valuable (Lonzo Ball) than anyone they had last season while clearing considerable cap space for next summer. They dumped Timofey Mozgov‘s toxic contract and held firm on not offering multi-year guarantees to anyone besides their three first-round picks.

The retooling came at a cost – chiefly 2015 No. 2 pick D'Angelo Russell, who was sent to the Nets with Mozgov for Lopez and a late first-rounder. But the upside justifies the risk in Los Angeles, where cap space goes further.

Though market matters, nothing recruits like winning, and the Lakers are better positioned to do that, too. Lopez is a good center whose floor spacing will help his new teammates. Caldwell-Pope is far better than anyone the Lakers could have expected to sign this summer while limiting themselves to one-year contracts, but a late entrance into unrestricted free agency and no satisfactory offers left him willing to sign short-term in Los Angeles and hit the market again next year. The Lakers should have their best season in five years, which could open doors.

George? LeBron James? Russell Westbrook? DeMarcus Cousins?

Two of those stars could be on the table next summer.

There’s still plenty of heavy lifting left to do. The Lakers want to dump Luol Deng (three years, $54 million remaining) and maybe Jordan Clarkson (three years, $37.5 million). They also face a decision on Julius Randle, who’ll have a $12,447,727 cap hold as a restricted free agent next summer. Renouncing him to sign a star would obviously be fine, but the Lakers might try to trade him before the deadline and get value for him rather than hedging their bets next summer.

Signing a star is clearly the priority, but even if the Lakers strike out, rebuilding around Ball, Brandon Ingram, Randle and Larry Nance Jr. is fine. The Lakers have multiple paths to a bright future.

They even got the smaller moves right. The early returns on No. 27 pick Kyle Kuzma are promising, though I’d caution against reading too much into hot summer-league shooting. Josh Hart was a sound selection at No. 30. Re-signing Tyler Ennis for two years with the second unguaranteed was excellent value.

Johnson looks like he knows what he’s doing – especially because the Lakers avoided the harshest tampering penalties, like losing draft picks or being prohibited from signing George.

Ultimately, this summer was just a precursor to next. But everything is starting to line up.

Offseason grade: B+

Ben Simmons has nerve impingement in lower back, to be re-evaluated in two weeks

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The biggest concern with Ben Simmons back issue is not that it will have him out weeks, it’s that nobody is saying what exactly is causing it.

Simmons has a nerve impingement in his lower back that will have him getting treatment daily, and he will be re-evaluated in two weeks, something first reported  by Shams Charania of The Athletic and confirmed by NBC Sports Philadelphia. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski provided some context, but nothing that is very encouraging.

A nerve impingement — what is commonly referred to as a pinched nerve — is exactly what it sounds like: Something is pressing on the nerve, “pinching” it and causing pain.

The big question: What is impinging on the nerve? That’s what Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes asked.

This does not sound like something that is going to be resolved in two weeks and Simmons will be back to normal.

Simmons injured his back last Wednesday in practice while grabbing a rebound, according to coach Brett Brown. Simmons sat out last Thursday’s Sixers game against the Nets, tried to play on Saturday vs. the Bucks but had to come out after one quarter, and has not set foot on the court since.

Simmons averages 16.9 points, 8.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds a game, not to mention a league-best 2.2 steals a night. The All-Star is a core part of the Sixers rotation and will miss significant time they try to climb up into the top four in the East and get home court for the first round of the playoffs. Shake Milton started Monday in Simmons place.

Tilman Ferttita: Rockets don’t fear Lakers, Clippers like they did Warriors

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta
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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta likes to talk.

Volume 48.

Fertitta, via Kirk Bohls of Statesman:

“I think Milwaukee is head over heels above everybody else,” said Fertitta

“We just need to get home court for the first and second rounds and see what happens.”

“None of us fear L.A. or the Clippers or Denver like we feared Golden State,” he said. “It’s not like how we were scared of them. We could easily win the West this year or get knocked out in the first round. Both L.A. teams, Denver, Houston, we’re all excellent teams. Just comes down to somebody gets hot and makes a shot. Our chances are as good as they’ve ever been.”

The Rockets stood up to the Warriors far more than any other team. But that was most true before Fertitta put his imprint on the franchise. He’s somewhat culpable for Houston cowering to Golden State.

As far as this season, Fertitta is right all around: The Bucks are great, combining last year’s success with important playoff lessons. Houston could easily win the West or lose in the first round. The Lakers, Clippers and Nuggets shouldn’t be feared. (Nobody fears the Nuggets, though they are a real championship contender.)

But the Lakers and Clippers also look like darned good playoff teams. Even if not predicting victory, Fertitta’s comments could become bulletin-board material in Los Angeles.

Rumor: Warriors acquired first-rounder, Andrew Wiggins for Giannis Antetokounmpo trade

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Andrew Wiggins, who's now with Warriors
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The Warriors have the NBA shook.

Even in last place.

It was more understandablenot necessarily right, but understandable – when Golden State was dominating. The Warriors won a title, won 73 games, signed Kevin Durant then won two more titles. In the midst of the run, they were treated as invincible. A team that great had never signed an outside free agent that great. Golden State really did seem “light years ahead.”

So, when the Warriors traded D'Angelo Russell for Andrew Wiggins and picks, some people cowered about what Golden State had up its sleeve next. Speculation even turned to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who faces a super-max decision this offseason and looked quite chummy with Stephen Curry (similar to how Kevin Durant once did while still with the Thunder).

Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report:

Some around the league believe the Golden State Warriors acquired a first-round pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves, along with Andrew Wiggins, with the notion of a potential future trade with the Bucks.

This is so silly.

Minnesota’s first-rounder (top-three-protected in 2021, unprotected in 2022) is a nice asset. The Warriors’ 2020 first-rounder will also land high in the draft. But Wiggins didn’t suddenly turn into a valuable player in Golden State. Owed $94,738,170 over the next three years, Wiggins still carries negative value. The Warriors aren’t now deftly positioned to land Antetokounmpo.

Golden State showed incredible vision by building an excellent team that appealed to Durant and clearing cap space to acquire him. But the Warriors got multiple fortunate breaks – Stephen Curry taking a smaller contract extension while injured in 2012, Golden State blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals, the salary cap spiking in 2016.

The Warriors can’t duplicate everything, swoop in and land Antetokounmpo.

Sure, it’s possible Wiggins improves in Golden State. Maybe Antetokounmpo will decline to sign a super-max extension, which should force Milwaukee to at least strongly consider trading him. It’s also conceivable Antetokounmpo threatens not to re-sign with anyone besides the Warriors, scaring off other teams and leaving Golden State’s offer the best that the Bucks’ get.

But it’s such a remote possibility of all that happening, it’s not worth worrying about.

This is paranoia about the Warriors at its worst.

Chris Paul on 2020 Olympics: My wife wants to go to Tokyo

Chris Paul
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Chris Paul feels great starring for the Thunder.

So great, he might even take on extra workload.

Paul – who helped Team USA win gold medals in 2008 and 2012 but didn’t compete in 2016 – said he’s “very serious” about playing the 2020 Olympics. Paul:

I’m excited about the opportunity. My wife is sort of calling the shots on this one. She said she wants to go to Tokyo.

I’ve been blessed and fortunate to play in 2008. I had no kids then. In 2012, my wife couldn’t come, because, four days after the gold medal game, she had my daughter.

We often hear about players missing international tournaments due to personal reasons. But that can go both ways. Paul might compete due to personal reasons.

Paul faces steep and deep competition for making the team at point guard: Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook, Kemba Walker, Mike Conley, Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White. Trae Young didn’t even make the list of finalists.

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said players who’ve previously represented the U.S. will get favorable consideration. So, that’ll help Paul.

If he plays, Paul – who turns 35 in May – would be Team USA’s third-oldest Olympian:

Chris Paul

Age for Team USA’s first game or, in 2020, first game of the tournament