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Three questions the Los Angeles Lakers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 26-56, missed the playoffs.

I know what you did last summer: The Lakers had the lottery gods smile on them and were able to draft Lonzo Ball at No. 2, but that was far from the only move they made. They traded Timofey Mozgov and his massive contract, plus DeAngelo Russell to Brooklyn and got back primarily Brook Lopez. The Lakers also added Kyle Kuzma, Thomas Bryant and Josh Hart in the draft, then were able to snag Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in free agency on a one-year contract. Veteran Corey Brewer is now a Laker and will come off the bench. The Lakers also lost Nick Young to the Warriors.

THREE QUESTIONS THE LAKERS MUST ANSWER:


1) The Lonzo Ball effect is real, but can he score enough for it to thrive and really change the Lakers culture?
Ball is one of those guys who has “it.” Not only do other players want to play with him, when they are on the court with him his run-the-floor, pass-first ethos infects everyone. Big men get out in transition knowing they will get rewarded. Guys make the extra pass. Luke Walton has a point guard in Ball who could bring the Warriors’ feel and style to Staples Center. The Lakers just feel different this season.

However, Ball has to score some to make it all work. He is always going to look to pass first, but teams are going to play him to do that and dare him to shoot — not just wide open jumpers, but on the drive. They are going to try to force him into floaters and midrange shots that are not yet a comfortable part of his arsenal. Ball has to hit some threes (which he is capable of doing, despite the funky release), and learn to score better at the rim when he attacks, he has to be a threat to score for his passing to have the desired effect.

Ball was not a heavy usage guy in college, and that’s not likely to change now — if he gets up to scoring a fairly efficient 10 points per game average this season that would be a win. The good news is as Summer League wore on teams more and more played him to pass, he adjusted and became more confident as a scorer (he had one 30-point game). That’s Summer League, and NBA defenders are longer, more athletic, and smarter, but if Ball can show that kind of development on the offensive end over the course of an NBA season it will be a great sign.

2) Is anyone going to play any defense? Last season, the Lakers had the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 110.6 points per 100 possessions. The season before, the Lakers were dead last in the NBA in defense (109.3). The season before that, the Lakers were 29th in the NBA in defense (108). The season before that the Lakers were 28th in the NBA in defense (107.9).

See a pattern here? The Lakers can run the court and whip the ball around on clever passes all they want, if they can’t get stops it’s all moot. With young players such as Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Kyle Kuzma getting heavy minutes this season the Lakers are not going to be great defensively, but they have to start getting better.

Some of the roster changes this summer will help with that. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a strong defender on the wing, and in a contract year he will be motivated to improve his reputation on that end (because wing defenders who can shoot threes get PAID). Brook Lopez isn’t a high-flying rim protector, he’s in trouble trying to defend in space if there is a switch off a pick, but he’s smart in the paint about being in the right place at the right time. He will help the Lakers’ paint defense.

Any culture change on defense will have to start with Luke Walton and the coaching staff — if the Lakers want to be a team that runs, they have to get stops. Walton has to make defense a priority and pull guys not hustling on that end. Then the players have to buy in, play the system, and put in the work — and if the Lakers do all that they probably still are bottom 10 in defense this season. But they need to start to see a change or nothing else will work.

3) How do Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma, Ivica Zubac, and the rest of the potential Lakers young core develop? If the dreams of Lakers fans and management — landing two big-time free agents next summer — are going to come true, the team has to do two things. First, clear out the cap space (which will likely involve dumping the Luol Deng contract before July 1, which would require sending out a sweetener like Randle or Nance or another nice young player in the trade).

The other thing is the young core of players on the roster has to develop to the point that “Superstar X” looks at the Lakers and thinks he can win there. Lonzo Ball and the culture change is just part of that, the other guys have to develop as well. Those players have the skills to be NBA players, but can they translate that into production on the court?

Brandon Ingram is at the top of the list of guys to watch. He has gotten stronger, he is more confident and aggressive — and he is shooting 26.7 percent this preseason. Small sample size and it’s preseason, but it’s a concern. He struggled with this last season, and his shots need to start going in (his form has always looked good). His defense needs to improve as well.

Beyond that, can Julius Randle (a better defender than he gets credit for) develop to the next level on offense and be able to be a threat stepping away from the basket. Kuzma has been a surprise both at Summer League and through the preseason with his hustle and suddenly sharp three-point shooting, will that continue or is his shooting a fluke? Can Zubac get stronger, develop a more diversified post game, and find a role as an old-school center on a running team? And the list goes on and on. Historically, the Lakers as an organization have never been great at developing talent (as opposed to the Spurs, for example) because they didn’t need to be, but in the modern NBA they have to figure it out. We’ll see if the Lakers can live up to that challenge.

USA’s 78-game international win streak ends at hands of Australia, Patty Mills, 98-94

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Gregg Popovich wanted his USA team to face some adversity. For them to be challenged and see how they’d respond.

He got his wish on a Saturday afternoon in Australia and has to be disturbed by the result.

Australia, behind a red-hot Patty Mills who finished 30 points and drained seemingly every big bucket down the stretch, tore up the USA defense and outplayed the Americans when it mattered most, beating Team USA 98-94 in an exhibition match in front of a raucous 52,000 people in Melbourne.

Team USA had won 78 consecutive games — including both friendlies and in international tournaments — before this loss. The last USA exhibition game loss was in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics (when the Americans took home the bronze).

The USA opens FIBA World Cup play in just more than a week, facing the Czech Republic in their first game on Sept. 1. The Americans enter that tournament as the favorites, but the combination of improved international play and a lot of elite American talent staying home has made the USA’s margin for error very slim. Teams such as Serbia have to see this result and gain confidence.

This loss comes just two days after

“They wanted it more than us tonight,” Kemba Walker said after the game. “Lesson learned for us.”

Those lessons include needing to clean up a defense that still has communication issues, and to find more consistent shot creation outside of pick-and-rolls with Kemba Walker or Donovan Mitchell.

Walker, who came off the bench to score 22, was clearly America’s best player. His ability to penetrate was the only thing all night that either forced the Aussie defense to collapse, or it allowed him to get space for a good shot. Donovan Mitchell, who finished with a dozen points including seven straight late in the game, was able to provide a little shot creation, but the Americans lacked much ball or player movement in this one. Harrison Barnes finished with 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting.

Popovich is clearly still experimenting with lineups and combinations, and that is the silver lining of this USA loss. This was not the American’s best foot forward.

But don’t take anything away from Australia, which played a physical and feisty game all afternoon. They put the ball more in the hands of Utah’s Joe Ingles and he responded with 15 points, seven assists, and he and Andrew Bogut set up the offense and were smart with their passes. Bogut finished with 15 points.

Team USA takes on Canada in a final exhibition game in a couple of days, before heading to China for the World Cup.

Report: Dwight Howard gave back $2.6 million in buyout with Memphis, what he will make in L.A.

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Dwight Howard will get his money, the full $5.6 million he opted into this summer. The man is getting paid.

The checks are just coming from two different teams.

To facilitate a move to the Lakers, Howard is giving back $2.6 million in a buyout with the Grizzlies — exactly how much he makes on a minimum contract with Los Angeles. From Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks of ESPN:

My guess is the Grizzlies will just take the cap hit this season to get Howard off the books.

This is exactly how this was expected to go down financially if Howard came to Los Angeles. The risk for Howard is he will sign a non-guaranteed contract with the Lakers — they can waive him for whatever reason, pay a small buyout fee, and Howard loses out on the $2.6 million.

That’s motivation for him to follow through on what he promised the team.

 

Former NBA, ABA coach Tom Nissalke dead at 87

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Tom Nissalke, who won coach of the year honors in the NBA and ABA, has died. He was 87.

Nissalke passed away at his home in Salt Lake City on Thursday after facing a “series of health-related problems” in recent years, according to the Deseret News.

He was the first coach of the Utah Jazz after the franchise relocated from New Orleans in 1979.

Nissalke was also an NBA head coach in Seattle, Houston, and Cleveland.

Nissalke got his start in the pro ranks as an assistant with Milwaukee and helped guide a team featuring Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to an NBA title in 1971. His work with the Bucks landed him a head coaching gig with the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals. He led them to a 42-42 record in his first season and was named the league’s top coach.

He was hired the next season in Seattle but was fired after a 13-32 start. Nissalke then coached the Utah Stars and San Antonio before returning to the NBA with the Rockets. He won 124 games in three seasons with Houston, twice taking the team to the playoffs and the 1977 Eastern Conference finals.

Nissalke was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year after going 49-33 in 1976-77.

After retiring, he was active with the YMCA and worked as a radio analyst.

Nissalke is survived by a daughter, Holly, son Thomas Jr, and two grandchildren. His wife, Nancy, died in 2006.

 

How Dwight Howard convinced the Lakers to take a chance on him

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Laker fans Friday sounded like your friends after an ugly relationship and breakup, when you suddenly consider taking that person back. Laker nation took to Twitter screaming “ARE YOU SERIOUS? What are you thinking? Are you even thinking?”

The Lakers, however, are entering a second relationship with Dwight Howard with their eyes wide open — he will sign a non-guaranteed contract to be the team’s center (sharing duties with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee). Howard will have to prove himself, on and off the court. The Lakers have leverage and can waive Howard and move on to Joakim Noah or someone else quickly if things do not pan out.

But how did it even get to this point? How did Howard — who did his annual summer media tour saying “I have changed, I am taking the game and my conditioning seriously, I just want a chance” and league observers shrugged because they have heard the same thing for years — convince the Lakers to roll the dice on him again? Shams Charania of The Athletic laid it all out.

Howard’s message to [Laker assistant coach Jason] Kidd and the Lakers was the same one he delivered to The Athletic in July from NBA summer league: He’s learned from the past several seasons, learned that, at age 33, he is simply one of the guys now. Howard believes he can contribute at a high level for any NBA team, but the eight-time All-Star also understands he has to focus on rebounding, defense, blocking shots, finishing around the rim and simply playing whenever he is asked… Kidd became convinced about Howard’s newfound awakening…

The Lakers then began setting workouts for free agents, and Howard traveled from Atlanta to Los Angeles on Wednesday. His meeting and workout with the Lakers was set for Thursday, but Howard went to the Lakers’ facility in El Segundo, Calif., on Wednesday afternoon for his own training session. The Lakers were surprised to see him, sources said, and many key decision makers were in attendance…

League sources said Howard had a convincing and emotional meeting with the players and Lakers officials, explaining how he had reached rock bottom a season ago and needed to find a new mindset in his life. On and off the floor. He was not the teammate he needed to be in playing for three teams in the past three years. He did not take the game seriously enough, he did not understand what was needed to turn the corner.

Howard has said all that before. Multiple times. To multiple teams and teammates. Maybe this time he has genuinely figured things out, but whatever he did and said was enough to convince the Lakers to buy in…

To a point.

One could argue — and I would make the case — that Noah would be a better fit on the court for the Lakers’ needs in terms of passing and defense, but he comes with plenty of risks as well (health, getting along with LeBron James, and how much he liked the nightlife as a Knick in New York and what that would mean in L.A.). At least with Howard, the Lakers mitigated that risk with the non-guaranteed contract. If Howard will not accept his role and is disruptive (as he has been in recent stops), if he is still eating candy like a bingeing 10-year-old on Halloween night, if he can’t stay healthy, the Lakers can waive Howard and move on. If the Lakers brought in Noah, they would have been smart to have the same non-guaranteed contract (if Noah would have signed that kind of deal).

For now the Lakers have their man, but he’s basically on probation. Howard has to prove in deeds everything he has said in words.