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Report: Lakers prioritizing ‘tough-minded playmakers’ who’ll allow LeBron James to post up more

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After adding LeBron James, the Lakers have since agreed to sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo.

What the heck are the Lakers doing?

Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

The Cavs were a team of specialists — many of them shooters — who were placed around the league’s ultimate Swiss Army knife. But at times, especially during the playoffs, it did have the feel that James was playing 1-on-5 and needing to play 48 minutes because he was the team’s only true creator and playmaker.

Cleveland also prioritized shooters and offense-minded players ahead of defenders and steadily sunk in the defensive rankings over the past three seasons, bottoming out as the No. 29 defensive efficiency team last season. This became a liability at times, particularly against the juggernaut Warriors.

What Johnson pitched to James was a team stocked with tough-minded playmakers like Stephenson and Rondo who could free up James to finish in the lanes and from the post, rather than having to create the lion’s share of the offense himself. Rondo and Stephenson are also defensively versatile as their length enables them to be effective defenders in switches. That also follows with the talents of the 6-foot-6 Ball, who showed the ability to be an elite rebounder and defender for a guard in his rookie year.

James, who will turn 34 in December, had studied the careers of all-time greats such as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan and noted how they moved from the wing to the post as they approached their mid-30s.

Playing more like Bryant and Jordan will take time and patience and James told Johnson that some habits will be hard to break, sources said. But James knows moving to playing more inside and giving up some control of the ball is important as he ages and his athleticism starts to fade.

Maybe the idea is playing in the post on this team will ideally train LeBron for the new challenge. If he can do it with the poor spacing Los Angeles will have next year, he can do it in any system. It’s like a donut on a baseball bat in the on-deck circle.

But I fear the Lakers believe this iteration will work.

It’ll be an uphill battle.

Lebron needn’t be his only team’s playmaker, but he’s arguably the greatest playmaker of all-time. Taking the ball out of his hands is self-defeating in the micro.

In the macro, perhaps that’ll allow him to preserve energy. LeBron reportedly wants to play off the ball more.

If that allows him to expend more energy on defense, it could pay off. The Cavaliers’ defense was awful, and LeBron’s laziness on that end factored both directly and indirectly, setting a tone for his teammates. Given LeBron’s massive offensive burden, that approach made some sense. But it had major drawbacks.

The problem now: Rondo and Stephenson aren’t good enough.

Their defensive reputations far exceed their production anymore. Stephenson has struggled outside Indiana, and Rondo dials it up only in the playoffs.

Rondo remains a plus-passer, and Stephenson brings creativity offensively. But it’ll be harder for both to operate on this spacing-challenged team. And they’ll be taking the ball from LeBron freaking James.

I’m also skeptical this is a massive departure from LeBron’s situation in Cleveland. The Cavs were at their best when surrounding LeBron with specialists. But they also spent enough time last season partnering LeBron with another ball-dominant perimeter player – Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade or Jordan Clarkson – to expose the failings of those lineups.

The Lakers are definitely prioritizing more defense, and their experiment deserves a chance to unfold. But I’m doubtful.

At least the Lakers have the young players (Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart) and cap space next summer to re-tool if this plan fails.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.