LaMarcus Aldridge’s renaissance started when he told Popovich to trade him

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LOS ANGELES — The renaissance in LaMarcus’ Aldridge’s game this season — back to an All-Star level — began last summer when he said something to Gregg Popovich nobody else ever had.

“When he said ‘I want to be traded,’” Popovich said when asked what started the conversations about how to better use Aldridge. “It’s as simple as that. I said, ‘Whoa. Nobody has said that to me before. It’s been 20 or whatever years and nobody had said that to me.

“(Aldridge said) ‘I’m not enjoying this, I’m not confident, I’m not sure you want me here. I want to be traded.’”

Aldridge had previously called it a “come to Jesus” meeting between the two. Leaving was Aldridge’s answer to his frustration with how he was used in a Kawhi Leonard-centric offense. Aldridge’s shot attempts dropped to the lowest level since his rookie season, and with that his points per game declined along with his efficiency. Aldridge was still good, but he was not being put in positions where he was comfortable, spots where he could thrive, and he wanted out.

That was not going to happen.

“I was very candid with him. I told him, ‘you get me a talent like Kevin Durant and I’ll drive you to the airport. I’ll pack your bags, I’ll drive you there, I’ll get you on the plane and I’ll get you seated,’” Popovich said with a smile. “And he laughed at that.

“But short of that, I’m your best buddy, because you’re here for another year and you’re not going nowhere. Because we’re not going to get, for you, talent-wise what we would want. So let’s figure this thing out.”

Dinners and meeting ensued, where Popovich and Aldridge talked hoops and life (as one does with Pop, it’s never just about basketball). Through it all, Popovich said he came to a realization.

“As discussions went on, it became apparent to me it was me,” Popovich said of what was holding Aldridge back. “He’s played in the league nine years, I’m not going to turn him into some other player. I could do some things defensively or rebounding-wise, but on offense I was going to move him everywhere. I was going to make him Jack Sikma off the post, get him on the elbows and he was going to pull it through, and that was just silly on my part.”

This season Aldridge has moved back closer to the basket — 41 percent of his shots this season come off post ups (according to Synergy Sports). He’s spotting up less, and with that he is shooting fewer long-two jumpers that were just not efficient. He’s still setting picks and popping out for some threes, but these are cleaner looks and he is shooting 34.4 percent from deep. Aldridge is getting the rock in his spots.

It’s worked. Aldridge is averaging 22.6 points per game, 8.6 rebounds, and has a PER of 24.4 that would be a career high. He’s going to be an All-Star (not a starter, based on the fan vote where he is 10th among Western Conference frontcourt players, but no way the coaches leave him off the team). He very well could be an All-NBA player again at the end of the season.

It all came about because Popovich, to use a favorite phrase of his, is “over himself.” He just got out of the way and let a great player play.

“I decided not to play Mr. Coach with him and try to be the smartest man in the room,” Popovich said. “That helped him out — he was already a good player, he didn’t need me to be there. I coach him at the defensive end, at the offensive end he’s better off without listening to me, and that’s been proven the entire year. Because in the past when he played I just confused him and tried to make him something he wasn’t. I was going to teach him all these things, and that didn’t work out real well.

“Obviously we’ve figured it out because we’ve extended him and he’s staying and all that sort of things.”

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.