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Lakers’ big summer looms after 5 straight losing seasons

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) And now the real season begins for the Los Angeles Lakers.

At least that’s what the fans of the 16-time NBA champions repeatedly have been told while Los Angeles missed the playoffs and finished with a losing record for the fifth consecutive year.

Ever since they took over the Lakers’ basketball operations a year ago, Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka have founded their rebuilding project around the acquisition of one or two elite free agents this summer – or next summer, they’ve recently amended.

Magic firmly believes the Lakers’ championship pedigree, glamorous location and salary cap room for two enormous contracts can attract superstars near the primes of their careers to lift one of the NBA’s cornerstone franchises back to its accustomed heights. The Lakers had only missed the playoffs five previous times in their first 65 years of existence before they doubled that number during this dismal half-decade.

But while the pursuit of Paul George and LeBron James constantly loomed on the horizon, the Lakers’ day-to-day development over the past season has been downright intriguing. For all their talk of the Lakers’ irresistible lure, Johnson and Pelinka knew they probably couldn’t attract free-agent stars without an attractive young core, and the last six months suggested they have it.

“If guys want to come here, they come,” rookie Kyle Kuzma said Thursday after his exit interview with team brass. “But if not, we’re not depending on that. We want to be those great players, those max-level guys. We just think about, `How can we make the team better?”‘

Rookies Lonzo Ball, Kuzma and Josh Hart all showed clear NBA ability, while youngsters Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle continued their development into above-average pros. Los Angeles’ 35-47 record and 11th-place conference finish in the just-completed season are its best performances by a considerable margin during this woeful five-year stretch.

The Lakers aren’t good yet, but the guys who are already in purple and gold could be key pieces in a very good team.

Here are more things to watch during another long offseason in LA:

PG SWEEPSTAKES

The Lakers are expected to put a full-court press on George, the Oklahoma City Thunder star who grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant in Palmdale, just north of Los Angeles. Even if James decides to stay home in Cleveland instead of becoming a dual-threat Hollywood mogul, the addition of George’s 20-plus points per night almost certainly would make the Lakers very entertaining in coach Luke Walton’s up-tempo system this fall. If George decides to play for a franchise closer to a championship, the Lakers will undoubtedly spin the narrative to the summer of 2019, when another bumper crop of free agents will be on the market.

RANDLE’S FUTURE

Randle’s improvement was among the Lakers’ most impressive developments of the season. The formerly inconsistent power forward played in all 82 games, averaging 16.1 points and 8.0 rebounds and emerging as a dependable two-way player. Randle is a free agent this summer after the Lakers decided not to lock him down with a contract extension last year, but Randle’s outstanding year has greatly increased the chances of a long-term deal in LA. “As far as the summer, who knows what will happen?” Randle said. “I’ve never done this before. All I know is it’s going to be a longer summer than I want it to be, with us not being in the playoffs. I think it’s exciting for me, though.”

FREE AGENCY

The Lakers’ desire for plenty of cap room this summer means they’ve got four talented veterans with expiring contracts: Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye. Lopez had a strong debut season with his hometown team, which won’t be able to afford him unless it comes up empty with the top-shelf free agents. Caldwell-Pope also seems likely to leave, while the market for Thomas’ skills is unpredictable after his injury-plagued year ended with hip surgery. If Thomas doesn’t attract a big offer, he seems amenable to a return to LA – as does Frye, a dependable veteran backup.

BALL GAME

After showing incredible basketball intelligence and a distressingly inconsistent shot, Ball said he is headed into “pretty much the biggest summer of my life.” The UCLA product with the opinionated parent understands the weaknesses in his game, and he seems determined to address his offensive flaws while building his overall strength. If Ball takes significant strides as a scorer, he would quickly become one of the NBA’s most dynamic young guards with his preternatural court vision and rebounding ability.

LUKE’S FUTURE

Walton seems extremely likely to return for a third season after his Lakers made a nine-game improvement on last year’s performance. Johnson and owner Jeanie Buss continue to speak glowingly of the young coach, and Walton doesn’t seem satisfied by the Lakers’ incremental improvements. “We know this is a team that’s supposed to be in the playoffs and to contend for championships, and that’s the goal we’re all trying to reach every day,” Walton said.

More AP NBA: http://www.apnews.com/tags/NBAbasketball

Report: Kawhi Leonard warming to playing for Raptors

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Shortly after the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors, word leaked he didn’t want to play for Toronto.

That stance is apparently softening.

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

They’ve been in communication with Kawhi Leonard’s camp. He’s going to play. He’ll be in training camp. He’s healthy. He may be at USA Basketball’s minicamp next week which Gregg Popovich is coaching. That’s possible.

But the one thing I was told today he’s started to warm to the idea that he’s going to a contender. He’s got a team that could be as good as anybody in the Eastern Conference.

And now it’s on Toronto to try to recruit him, keep him. But in his mind right now, he’s headed to L.A. next year.

Leonard has little choice but to get on board. If he withheld services from the Raptors, they could fine him – eventually all the way up to his entire $20,099,189 salary for next season. Perhaps even more catastrophically, if it was determined he withheld services for more than 30 days of the season, he could be denied free agency entirely.

Maybe he could have finessed using his injury as an excuse rather than explicitly holding out. It has been threatened before. But that’s hard to manage and would have hurt his stock among all teams, including his preferred destination(s).

The best way for Leonard to get everything he wants is going to Toronto, playing well then becoming a free agent next summer.

I’d advise Leonard to keep an open mind until then. It might have made sense to posture against the Raptors to discourage a trade. But the trade has happened. Maybe he’ll join Toronto and like it more than he expects.

Paul George didn’t expect to stay with the Thunder, but he considered them throughout the season and found a long-term home. I don’t expect that to repeat with Leonard and the Raptors, but it could. Why close the option?

If not, Los Angeles will always be waiting.

Report: Spurs wanted to declare Kawhi Leonard out for the season, but he wouldn’t let them

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In February, Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again during the 2017-18 season. Leonard didn’t, but the Spurs never followed Popovich’s doubt with a clear statement on Leonard’s status. Instead, Popovich repeatedly deferred questions of Leonard’s health in the following months to Leonard’s “group.”

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Privately, officials within organization had hoped Leonard would let the Spurs declare him out for the season due to his injury, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Believing he’d eventually return, Leonard declined each time

Did Leonard not realize this made him – not the Spurs – look bad? Especially once it leaked he’d been cleared medically. Especially when he told the team repeatedly and public once he’d return soon but never did.

Perhaps, this was just genuine competitiveness. Maybe Leonard really thought, or at least wanted to believe, a return was around the corner. This could have been him valiantly never giving up.

But there’s a reason teams usually err on the side of caution in long-term injury announcements. It’s to protect the player from looking bad for remaining out if he’s not quite ready as quickly as initially projected.

The Pacers received a disabled-player exception for Paul George in 2014-15, and he still beat the odds to return late in the year. The Celtics called Gordon Hayward out for this season and weren’t going to stray from that public stance until he suited up, even when – for a moment – it appeared he had a chance of returning.

Even if the Spurs publicly declared him out for the rest of the year, nothing would have stopped Leonard from playing. It’s not a binding resolution. Instead, he repeatedly missing targeted return dates and looked soft to many because of it.

And he insisted on the strategy that led to that perception!

This is just more evidence those around Leonard might not know what they’re doing.

Report: Spurs wouldn’t trade Kawhi Leonard to 76ers unless they included Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid

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The 76ers reportedly refused to include Markelle Fultz in trade offers for Kawhi Leonard, which seems misguided to me. Leonard carries major questions about his future, but after his rookie year, so does Fultz! At least Leonard has proven he can reach an elite level. That’s not to say Philadelphia should have definitely dealt Fultz for Leonard. The 76ers definitely have a better understanding of Fultz’s behind-the-scenes progress, and they might have more information on Leonard’s health and willingness to stay long-term. I just wouldn’t have made Fultz a deal-breaker in negotiations.

But it seems the Spurs placed a far more unreasonable restriction on Philadelphia, though.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Spurs made it clear any deal with Philly would require Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid (likely Simmons), and the Sixers weren’t going anywhere near that, league sources say.

Given their age and contract status – and, in Simmons’ case, health – Simmons and Embiid are each way more valuable than Leonard. There’s no way the 76ers would have dealt either of those two for Leonard.

Which apparently took a still-viable suitor off the table for San Antonio.

Between Fultz, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Zhaire Smith, the Heat’s 2021 first-rounder and Philadelphia’s own picks, the 76ers could have assembled a better package than the Raptors sent the Spurs for Leonard. Maybe the 76ers wouldn’t have. But it would have been worth at least exploring.

It seems San Antonio placed too much on remaining competitive, which led to a deal revolving around DeMar DeRozan. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy per se, but it gets more difficult to defend when the Spurs got so little. In this Western Conference, they could slip out of the playoffs, even with DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. A long-term approach should have at least been considered.

To be fair, I’d also caution against taking this report at face value with no skepticism. Today, 28 teams – especially those, like Philadelphia, linked to Leonard – are trying to explain why they didn’t get the star. This could easily be the 76ers’ spin and not an accurate reflection of the Spurs’ stance.

But Lowe is a great reporter, and I tend to trust this – which raises red flags about San Antonio.

NBA players bothered by Raptors trading DeMar DeRozan

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DeMar DeRozan is clearly upset with the Raptors for trading him (for Kawhi Leonard).

Is DeRozan’s frustration justified?

To a certain extent, he’s entitled to feel however he wants. I would never tell him his reaction is “wrong.”

But that’s not the same as endorsing his outlook. Should we rally behind him and hold Toronto accountable for mistreating him? Answering that question relies on so much hearsay, I’m not sure it’s possible to answer fairly.

In what I find a telling illustration of the situation, ESPN has updated its story on the trade multiple times today. In an early version:

Sources close to DeRozan told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that DeRozan met with Toronto brass in Las Vegas during summer league and was told he would not be traded.

That got changed to:

Sources close to DeRozan told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that DeRozan met with Toronto officials in Las Vegas during summer league and believed that he would not be traded.

That’s a subtle, but meaningful, distinction.

Did the Raptors tell DeRozan he wouldn’t be traded? Different people involved in the conversation would probably give different answers.

Did DeRozan take away that Toronto wouldn’t trade him? It seems so, and maybe it’s because team officials told him that directly. But it’s also possible he misinterpreted team officials. Not that he’s willing to grant that possibility.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Without being privy to the exact wording, I don’t know where to side.

Unsurprisingly, other players are backing DeRozan – some publicly and quite strongly, others anonymously.

Lou Williams:

Isaiah Thomas:

Damian Lillard:

Anthony Morrow:

Enes Kanter:

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

DeRozan meant a lot to the Raptors, and he deserves a proper sendoff. But some of this strikes me as an overreaction.

The Spurs didn’t thank Leonard in their press release, either. Both teams posted cursory messages of gratitude on social media to their outgoing players. Gregg Popovich held a press conference today and said many kind things about Leonard, though. The main difference appears to be Masai Ujiri just hasn’t happened to hold his press conference yet. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t effusively praise DeRozan in it.

And to Kanter’s claim the Raptors gave away DeRozan for nothing? They got Kawhi freaking Leonard.

For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the spotlight-seeking Kanter just saying something outlandish to draw attention.

Even if that were Kanter’s intent, that just feeds into this spiraling into a bigger deal than it probably should be.

If the Raptors told DeRozan they wouldn’t trade him, they shouldn’t have done that. If they told DeRozan they didn’t plan to trade him while they were secretly putting the final touches on this deal, they shouldn’t have done that.

But if they told DeRozan they didn’t plan to trade him and truly didn’t at that moment, I wouldn’t blame them. Plans can change, and it would have done them no good to warn DeRozan of that possibility. If he expected more loyalty, that’s on him.

Ujiri will get a chance to explain himself. So will DeRozan – though his narrative is already gaining significant traction, especially among his peers. Maybe we’ll actually become positioned to make an outside judgment.

Most likely, this will remain a he-said, he-said situation that wanes in significance. DeRozan will probably play hard in San Antonio and grow to enjoy it there. Players – even, I bet, including DeRozan – will forgive the Raptors in time. As much furor as these things evoke in the moment, players rarely hold a grudge to the point of avoiding franchises.

But for now, Toronto is dealing with a perception hit right as it begins its courtship of one of the NBA’s top players, Leonard.