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Gregg Popovich on LaMarcus Aldridge: “We’d really be lost without him”

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Last summer, trade rumors were swirling around LaMarcus Aldridge amid reports he was not happy in San Antonio. While Twitter buzzed with trade possibilities, Aldridge sat down with Gregg Popovich and they talked about how he could be used better — and in ways he was more comfortable — in the Spurs offense. No trade was made, Aldridge returned to Spurs camp this fall.

The Spurs knew they were going into the season without Tony Parker, a key part of their depth (and their most reliable pick-and-roll player). Then came the news they would be without Kawhi Leonard (19 games and counting).

The Spurs are a solid 12-7 to start the season, and Popovich gave a lot of credit for that to Aldridge, speaking to Michael C. Wright of ESPN.

“He’s gotten us through this period of time without Tony and Kawhi in a wonderful way,” Popovich said of Aldridge. “He’s scoring, he’s playing defense, rebounding, running the floor. We’d really be lost without him.”

Aldridge is playing at an All-Star level, averaging 22.2 points and 8.3 rebounds a game, but it’s his efficiency that has impressed — while taking on more of the offense, he has a career-high True Shooting Percentage of 57.3, and his PER of 25.6 also would be a career best. His assist rates are up, his turnover rates down, and he is taking fewer midrange jumpers (even though he can hit them) and shooting more at the rim or from three.

The Spurs wins are more than just Aldridge. Pau Gasol has played well, Kyle Anderson has gone in slo-mo right past everyone to a big step forward in his game, and Dejounte Murray has given them strong minutes at the point. It’s been a group effort, as Spurs GM R.C. Buford pointed out.

“The team’s done a terrific job of coming together. A lot of new players,” Buford told ESPN. “I think Pau [Gasol] and LaMarcus have obviously been significant and the contributions of other guys who have filled in and come together well. We’re obviously not the best team in the league. But the group has taken care of its responsibilities in a way that puts them in a position to win.

If the Spurs can integrate Leonard back into this roster and build on it, they become a lot more dangerous. That’s not as easy as it sounds, Leonard will get a lot of touches and shots, but if you’re going to trust any coach with that job Popovich is the call.

Michael Avenatti charged with stealing money Hassan Whiteside intended to pay ex-girlfriend

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Heat center Hassan Whiteside became the first player in NBA history to go from a minimum salary one season to a max salary the next.

Some of that money allegedly got embezzled by Michael Avenatti.

Avenatti – the infamous lawyer who represented Stormy Daniels, who claimed she was paid to keep quiet about having an affair with Donald Trump – has been charged with attempted extortion of Nike and stealing from other clients. One of those other clients: Whiteside’s former girlfriend, Alexis Gardner.

Michael Finnegan of the Los Angeles Times:

An actress and barista, she’d hired him just a few weeks before to negotiate a settlement of a potential lawsuit against Whiteside. It’s unclear what she would have alleged. Avenatti quickly struck a $3-million deal, and the $2.75 million was Whiteside’s first payment.

Avenatti, prosecutors say, was entitled to take just over $1 million in legal fees, leaving the rest for Gardner.

Instead, they allege, Avenatti hid Whiteside’s payment from her and immediately took $2.5 million to buy a share of a private jet.

Report: Lakers have no plans to replace Magic Johnson, who’ll still help team recruit FAs

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Magic Johnson’s stunning resignation as Lakers president caused a commotion.

It didn’t create a power vacuum.

Rob Pelinka is clearly in charge. He’s the highest-ranking member of the front office. His title – general manager – is the one many teams give to the leader of their basketball operations. He’s running the Lakers’ coaching search.

Though they’ve been linked to big-name candidates for president, the Lakers could easily keep the status quo with Pelinka running the show. And it sounds as if that’s what Lakers owner Jeanie Buss will do.

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

Buss has no plans to hire someone to replace Johnson, who is still expected to be part of the Lakers’ free-agent recruiting this summer.

Allowing Pelinka to hire a head coach – which, again, he’s in the process of doing – then supplanting him would be absurd. At least it seems the Lakers aren’t doing that.

But Pelinka was part of the organization while it made a comedy of errors. The former agent also had front-office experience until getting hired with Johnson a couple years ago. It’s hard to believe he’s the right choice to lead the team as it enters this critical stage.

LeBron James is 34. The Lakers will have max cap space this summer. Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are progressing toward establishing clearer value – one way or the other.

To entrust Pelinka in this situation, Buss ought to have a clear explanation for why Pelinka doesn’t deserve a fair share of blame for all the mistakes that occurred the last couple years. There are plenty of people, inside and outside the Lakers, who question him.

The wildest part about this report: Johnson still helping the Lakers recruit this summer. He’s an all-time great player and charismatic. But he also just said while resigning:

What I didn’t like is the backstabbing, the whispering. I don’t like that. I don’t like a lot of things that went on that didn’t have to go on.

How will he sell that to free agents – especially if Pelinka, suspected to be whom Johnson is referring to, remains in charge?

Russell Westbrook goes from ‘Next question’ to ‘That’s a good question. Not sure’ (video)

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Russell Westbrook can be a pain.

Pain to his opponents. Pain to his teammates. Pain to the media.

Sometimes, it seems Westbrook even takes pride in being a jerk. Which is fine. His cutthroat attitude is part of who he is, and it has gotten him a long way.

Lately, Westbrook has clashed with Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman. For months, Westbrook has answered all Tramel’s questions with, “Next question.” Yet, Tramel keeps asking them – as he should. Westbrook has earned control over a lot of things. Tramel shouldn’t cede control of his job to Westbrook.

The back-and-forth has gotten increased prominence during the playoffs, when postgame press conferences are nationally televised. Both sides have found plenty of support. Westbrook’s fans love that his intensity never relents. Many also respect Tramel’s professionalism.

Four years ago, Westbrook infamously told Tramel, “I just don’t like you.” Westbrook got into it with Tramel again two years ago. But Tramel continues to cover the Thunder the best he can.

Likewise, Westbrook is trying to lead Oklahoma City the best he can. That means picking battles, even small ones like this, and pushing himself to win them all.

But after the Thunder’s Game 4 loss to the Trail Blazers last night, Westbrook finally gave an inch. But just an inch.

Tramel asked how the Thunder’s defense of Damian Lillard changed from the first half to the second half.

“That’s a good question,” Westbrook said. “Not sure.”

Tramel asked about the lessons learned about overcoming a 3-1 deficit to the Grizzlies in the 2014 playoffs. (Oklahoma City trailed 2-1 and 3-2 in that series, but never 3-1).

“Really don’t know,” Westbrook said.

For Westbrook, those answers were a huge breakthrough. They surprised everyone, even Tramel. Just a few days ago, the columnist predicted Westbrook wouldn’t change his two-word answers anytime soon: “He’s not going to give in this playoff series.”

Maybe this means the series is over.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse leaves mouth agape a loooong time after odd call (video)

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The Raptors got called for an extremely quick three-second violation during their Game 4 win over the Magic yesterday.

Toronto coach Nick Nurse couldn’t believe it.

Really couldn’t believe it.

Just couldn’t believe it one bit.