Lakers looking long-term — or at least to 2019 — in building with LeBron

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When LeBron James started winning rings and at least making it to the Finals every year (eight and counting) coincided with when he took charge of his own destiny and got into team building.

He chose to break with tradition and partner up with two other stars — Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — down in Miami. It was a move changed the landscape of the NBA. When the Heat situation no longer worked for him, LeBron went home again and pushed for roster moves he wanted — starting with moving Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love — and it all led to the four trips to the Finals and the first title for the city of Cleveland in more than five decades.

Now LeBron comes to Los Angeles — however, the process with the Lakers is not going to be as fast. It will take a little patience.

Heading into free agency there was no doubt LeBron James wanted to be a Laker, but plenty of people in the league were not convinced he would go on his own — he’d want another superstar player to come first. L.A. had to set up a team that could win right now because LeBron at age 33 was not going to wait around. Everyone knew LeBron plus the existing Lakers core is not going to be enough in the brutal West.

LeBron once again defied expectations and jumped in with both feet — he agreed to a four-year, $154 million contract with the Lakers.

Now it becomes about team building in Los Angeles.

That building starts with LeBron trusting Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka in a way he never trusted Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers organization — he gave the Lakers four years (three plus one year with a player option, technically). In Cleveland, it was a series of one-year deals, and even when they won a championship it was only two years. He never gave up leverage, he pushed them as an organization (with mixed results). In Los Angeles, he planted a flag for the long haul.

How is this Lakers team going to get built? Patience not rushed decisions. This is not just a summer of 2018 project, lining up the right players to contend will stretch into 2019. At least.

Kawhi Leonard is the first name to come up — and make no mistake, LeBron would love to have the Spurs’ Finals MVP on the wing. If healthy, Leonard is exactly the kind of running mate LeBron needs to start to threaten Golden State — an elite switchable defender who can hit threes and create off the dribble. Leonard is an MVP-level player when right.

However, the Spurs want to extract the best price they can for surrendering their best player. As they should. San Antonio is not going to move fast, and they want to drag multiple teams into a bidding war — Philadelphia wants to play, Boston is on the fringes, and the Spurs are trying to lure them in. San Antonio is going to slow play this.

The Lakers are not waiting around. Los Angeles doesn’t feel the pressure to land Leonard to get LeBron. The sides will keep talking, but a trade that guts the L.A. roster of young players isn’t mandatory to get the big prize. Los Angeles has what it most wanted.

Instead, the Lakers’ moves in the wake of signing LeBron show a team thinking about the summer of 2019. Everything has been one-year deals — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (for $12 million), Lance Stephenson ($4.4 million room exception), and JaVale McGee (for the minimum). Those are players who can help the Lakers compete now but who do not carry salaries over into next summer.

That summer of 2019 is when a host of free agents come up: Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Eric Bledsoe, and Kemba Walker are the biggest names, plus guys such as Kevin Love and Al Horford have player options. Anyone who comes on the market, the Lakers can be in the mix to land if they so choose.

The Lakers are also positioned to go after any player who becomes available in a trade — the Lakers have a nice young core that can be moved for the right star.

That young core is excited about LeBron to the Lakers.

Now comes the harsh light of evaluation on those players — which ones can help win a title for the Lakers, and which ones are out. The days of patient evaluation and growth measurement are over in a lot of ways, it’s about winning and winning big. Can Brandon Ingram help with that? Lonzo Ball? Kyle Kuzma?

Julius Randle could be back with the Lakers on a one-year deal, or if he signs the qualifying offer because there are not other offers out there (it’s a very tight market), but the Lakers are not sacrificing their cap space for anyone.

Flexibility is the buzzword for Los Angeles going forward. That and patience.

The Lakers trust that the combined gravity of playing with LeBron and the Lakers’ brand/market is going to bring in star players. LeBron has bet on that as well. It’s just not going to be instantaneous. Maybe the best options pop up this summer (Leonard). Maybe it’s something unexpected closer to the trade deadline. Maybe it’s the summer of 2019. Whatever it is, the Lakers have left themselves the flexibility to go after it and make it happen.

LeBron is back in the business of team building — and this could be his most legacy-defining building project to date. But now he has a partner.

Three things to know: It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

The Detroit Pistons had a two-part plan down the stretch and in overtime against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

First, aggressively trap Doncic out high on every pick-and-roll, make him give up the ball and dare any other Maverick to beat you.

Second, put the ball in Killian Hayes’ hands and turn him loose.

The result was Hayes hitting two clutch 3-pointers in the final 1:15 of overtime to lift the Pistons to a big 131-125 win at home over the Mavericks.

“They were switching me into a one-on-one matchup, so I knew I could get a shot off,” Hayes said via the Associated Press. “The first one felt good and the second one felt even better.”

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 to lead Detroit.

A frustrated Jason Kidd after the game rightfully questioned his team’s defense — Detroit, without Cade Cunningham, put up a 126 offensive rating for the night.

However, this loss speaks to the larger issue with the Mavericks.

Luka Doncic finished the night with 35 points on 50% shooting with 10 assists, but he had just seven points and two assists in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Pistons focused on getting the ball out of his hands (Doncic had the same number of points in the fourth and OT as the Pistons’ Marvin Bailey III). Nobody else on the Mavs consistently made the Pistons pay. The lack of secondary shot creation is a real issue, and while it’s nice to see Kemba Walker back in the league it’s a big ask for him to change that dynamic. The Mavericks beat the Warriors the other night, but it took a 41-point triple-double from Doncic, and that’s what it will take a lot of nights.

Doncic is playing at an MVP level this season, and against Detroit he consistently made the right basketball play in the face of double teams. But the load the Mavericks are asking of him is going to wear Doncic down over the course of the season, and it will cost the team games. The man needs some help (and it may not come until next season).

2) Bucks Khris Middleton expected to make return Friday night vs. Lakers

The Milwaukee Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season, compiling a 15-5 record with the best defense in the league behind an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

And now they are about to get a lot better.

Khris Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers. He has missed training camp and the start of the season following wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly, he is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense, the guy with the ball in his hands to create for others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Milwaukee’s halfcourt offense has struggled without him, they are ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession in the halfcourt (via Cleaning the Glass). It has held the Bucks’ overall offense back this season.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, just having Middleton back makes the Bucks that much better. Which is bad news for the rest of the league.

3) Celtics extend Al Horford for two seasons beyond this one

Al Horford, age 36, is going to stick around in the NBA for a couple more seasons.

Horford and the Celtics reached a deal on a two-year, $20 million extension (which kicks in next season).

This is a pay cut for Horford — who will make $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia — but it’s a fair deal for both sides. This puts Horford closer to league-average money, which lines up with his value on the court at this point. Horford gets a couple more guaranteed years in the league, Boston gets a quality rotation player locked up, but at a low enough figure that if Father Time starts to win the race they will be okay.

Horford has had to play a more prominent role to start the season in Boston with Robert Williams still out following knee surgery. He is averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Eventually, Joe Mazzulla needs to get the old man a little rest, but until the Celtics starting center returns he has little choice but to lean into Horford.

Celtics lock-up Al Horford with two-year, $20 million extension

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
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Brad Stevens has locked up the core of this Celtics team — the one that reached the Finals last season and has the best record in the NBA to start this one — through the summer of 2025.

They did that with a two-year, $20 million extension (that kicks in next season). The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and later confirmed by the Celtics.

Horford, 36, is making $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia. While he never fit well as a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, he has worked well as a role player in Boston’s front line. The Celtics have locked him up at a deal closer to the league average and about his value now, at an average of $10 million a season (both years are fully guaranteed). It’s a fair deal for both sides, and a low enough number that if Father Time starts to win the race it doesn’t hurt Boston much.

With Robert Williams still out following knee surgery, Horford has seen his minutes increase to start this season but he has handled it well, averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Joe Mazzulla will likely try to get Horford some rest down the line when he can, but for now he’s leaning on the veteran.

And the team has rewarded him.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.