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5 up, 5 down: Is LeBron going to the Lakers wack, meaningless, or great?

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5 Up, 5 Down is a column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

We haven’t published this column for some time as we have been gone sunning ourselves outside in the beautiful NBA offseason. But now we are back, and LeBron James is rightly on the West Coast. His decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers felt all but inevitable, and even if it doesn’t quite have the basketball impact many are hoping for when it comes to the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, it’s still the biggest story of the summer.

It seems like LeBron coming to California is a big deal, but if we are to believe that he doesn’t have a real chance of tipping the Warriors or rockets in the postseason, I’m not sure it actually has an appreciable difference on how we view the regular season. The Lakers always get talked about — as does James — so combining them is almost becomes more of an ease of access thing for NBA media.

I kid, of course, but if we have to seriously listen to people pontificate all season about why LeBron can’t make the NBA Finals this year with a roster that includes JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson, that’s another thing. No doubt some of us are headed that way no matter what, so I suppose we should just tuck in for the ride.

So without further ado.

5 Up

Kawhi isn’t a Laker

As with most Millennials, I am firmly in the camp of players having more control over their destiny in the NBA. But something about this Kawhi Leonard thing … just isn’t right.

It all started a while back when we heard rumors about Leonard drinking nothing but alkaline water, which is something that only gets sold on Instagram promoted feeds and in the types of grocery stores where the hot bar is $15.99 a pound. That seemed harmless enough, but we really haven’t talked about how Leonard and his “people” keep pushing him into a direction away from the league’s best franchise.

Set aside all of the weirdness with Tony Parker and how the Spurs managed his injury over the course of last season: it now it seems like there might always be serious distance created by those advisors between Leonard and whatever team he may be on.

If you are the Los Angeles Lakers or any other team looking at Leonard, I think there are several things to look at. It’s not just about his injury history, and it’s not about trying to make the right swap that keeps your roster mostly intact. It’s also examining the people that are around Leonard and what kind of things they’re going to put into his ear next.

I’m sure I will be proven wrong about all of this in 20 years when Leonard’s book comes out, but in the meantime it definitely seems like such a stark turn it’s hard to ignore the “hidden advisor” aspect of this whole thing. Plus, the NBA is not better when the Los Angeles Lakers are good. LA hasn’t won more than 40 games since 2013 and in that time the association has taken off. Don’t @ me.

Trade him to the Clippers.

DeMarcus Cousins is a Warrior

This move is all kinds of weird on paper, but it makes sense for both parties involved and I am okay with it. First, Cousins gets to try to rehabilitate not only his image as a franchise player, but his playing ability when it comes to being offered a max contract in the summer of 2019.

For Golden State, it’s worth the risk if Cousins comes back toward the end of the season and plays dominant basketball or some semblance of the way he did before his Achilles tear. That makes Golden State even more ridiculous, and perhaps pushes us toward the league finding a way to stop guys taking discounts in their primes to load up on one team.

Plus, if you are a Warriors hater there is like a 30% chance that DeMarcus will torpedo the Golden State locker room.

All the weirdo guys the Lakers signed

We all agree that every Lakers signing works toward the goal of creating a reality show and not an NBA team, right? Next year will not be about basketball for LeBron James. What a Lakeshow.

Paul George staying in OKC

Every single person cannot go to the Lakers, and as the Thunder moved towards trying to keep their own players it only made sense that they were going to offer Paul George a massive contract like the one he signed.

The Thunder will be able to duck some of their luxury tax filings with the Carmelo Anthony move, but still Oklahoma City will carry a massive cap figure as they battle for a middle place finish in the Western Conference. It sort of reminds me about those early 2000s Portland Trail Blazers teams that were always over the luxury tax and getting walloped by the Lakers or the Spurs in the playoffs. It’s truly a beautiful thing to watch a ownership group set a bunch of money on fire for a Game 5 elimination in the second round.

Good for George, and too bad for the Thunder. They won’t have a lot of maneuvering space and I’m not sure getting back Andre Roberson will be enough to counteract the rest of the improvements made in the Western Conference this offseason.

Chris Paul has a gigantic contract

If you are a Rocket hater you should probably love the Chris Paul contract. It’s massive, and although it keeps Houston in contention for the next couple of years alongside the Golden State Warriors, it also means that the Rockets will be laden with Paul’s contract as he continues to age.

Remember, Paul is a player who had knee surgery a decade ago and there are serious doubts about whether he can make it through an entire season — or postseason — without taking on a serious injury.

Houston can play beautiful basketball when they are in the regular season. But in the playoffs this year, they became the same old story. Watching James Harden and Paul use gamesmanship to grab 35 fouls per quarter was boring as hell, and I’m not going to root for it. The regular season Rockets are fun, but the postseason version isn’t. Paul’s decline is likely coming soon, which should save us from having to watch Playoff Houston for too much longer.

5 Down

LeBron James is a Laker

This was both the wackest way possible for LeBron James to end his tenure in Cleveland while simultaneously being the most obvious.

The supposition here, especially with the current Lakers roster, is that James is waving the white flag against the Warriors and the Rockets, allowing them to take over the basketball side of the postseason while he takes on more of a brand focus. That’s fine, and Los Angeles certainly is a good place to do that. There is no arguing that, it’s just that now that James is in LA it’s going to make Lakers fans feel as though their team is relevant again.

Let’s be clear: not even good teams in the NBA are relevant. The Lakers aren’t a good team, even with James on them. There is an 80% chance LA is a complete tire fire next year, which will be fun to watch if you aren’t from Glendale. I’m not saying the Milwaukees and Phoenixes of the world need to be given a fair shake. I’m just not conceding that LeBron in LA is cool in any way.

I suppose this move to California doesn’t matter given that LeBron’s legacy is already set. Even if he plays out the entirety of this next contract with the Lakers, no one will ever think of him as a Laker first. He’s always going to be a Cavalier, then a Heat, then a Laker. It’s weird that moving to Los Angeles, given all of its benefits, won’t have an impact on LeBron’s legacy. If he wins a championship, then we can talk.

Las Vegas Summer League

Summer League is ridiculous. It’s full of bad basketball and air balls, all by top picks you hoped would be much better in their first NBA action. Meanwhile, Vegas itself is a nightmare. It’s a hundred degrees outside by 8:45 AM and any time spent heading to the UNLV facilities is largely dominated by wanting to not soak through your button down shirt.

Here are the stories you can write every year coming out of Summer League. There’s no need to even have this thing.

  • Player A has gained 20 pounds of muscle.
  • Player B was a shooter in college but apparently can’t shoot now.
  • Player C was a second rounder who looks ready to start.
  • Player D scared an entire fanbase when he tweaked a knee. He’s fine, but now you assume he’s going to get hurt if he plays more than eight minutes at a time.
  • Player E went in the Top 5 and is scoring 25 points per game against dudes who will get cut by Israeli league teams. He’s going to fall on his face maybe 10 out of the first 20 games of the actual season.

LVSL exists for one explicit purpose and that’s for all us blog boys to meet each other in person to find out how weird looking we all are. Call me when Summer League is somewhere cool, like Portland. Or the moon.

The Draft was boring

We didn’t have any current NBA players traded during the first round of the actual draft itself. The salary cap crunch has hit everybody particularly hard, and save for the teams going after the likes of the LeBron Jameses and the Paul Georges of the world, many teams had to simply do what the draft was intended for: take the best guy available to develop them.

It’s not like those players can’t get traded later, but it does seem as though many teams will be taking a chance on long-term development of players they might not have wanted in first place.

Meanwhile, all I can think about is how dumb the NBPA was for not agreeing to cap smoothing. Those guys are usually pretty smart, and they have a lot of help on their side, including Michelle Roberts. Maybe they were just scared off by literally every CBA negotiation they’ve ever had with the NBA, where they usually get their own butts handed to them in some unforeseen way. But the NBPA’s flat-out refusal to smooth the cap — as the league suggested for their own good — was a huge blunder. Sure, they gave giant chunks of money all at once to guys like Chandler Parsons and Evan Turner. And good for them! But no doubt more players this season will have to play somewhere they don’t want and take smaller deals in anticipation for next summer because guys like Turner and Parsons got massive deals.

I also wonder if the talk about the summer of 2019 is a bit trumped-up. Sure, a lot of big guys will come on the market and they will get their contracts. But they were always going to get their contracts, whether it was this year or next. The real goal of the NBPA is to have a rising tide that lifts all boats. It’s possible that teams will remember the sting of 2016 and be more reticent to spend big money on role players the way they did that season when next summer comes around.

The Blazers are drowning

I wrote about how the Blazers refusing to re-sign Ed Davis was perhaps an indicator that GM Neil Olshey was going to make a few drastic moves. They have already taken to a couple of the options I suggested, including signing Jusuf Nurkic to a $12 million per-season contract. They have also used up a bit of their mid-level exception, so all that is left from my proposed offseason plan is to utilize their trade exception from Allen Crabbe.

That trade exception expires at the end of July, and it’s unclear whether Portland will be able to find someone good enough to use that exception on. There has been lots of talk in Portland about Damian Lillard perhaps wanting to force his way out of Rip City, which I think is nonsense. However, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Lillard is getting a bit frustrated. He has already had a talk with owner Paul Allen, and moving forward it seems like Olshey needs to find some kind of solution, and quick.

I don’t think that Lillard sees losing to the Warriors as that much of an issue. More realistically, it’s the idea of not having a good enough team to take on the Warriors and at least have a chance. That’s why joining the Lakers or playing for the New York Knicks, both terrible teams, doesn’t make sense for Lillard. Olshey needs to show he’s at least trying, and not playing it smooth and safe in the face of free agent failure. Even if it’s another Evan Turner-like gamble, that exception needs to get used by Olshey. If he doesn’t, he might be on his way out of Portland either way.

Carmelo Anthony is leaving the Thunder

Carmelo Anthony was a prolific scorer during his time in Denver. And, for two seasons in New York, he was an efficient power forward. That was his true position. But last year in Oklahoma City, it was apparent that Carmelo was unwilling to play his correct position. He also wasn’t going to come off the bench, and the results were predictable.

Anthony held the ball, killing valuable Thunder possessions while ending up with a negative VORP for the season. Him finding a way off the Oklahoma City roster is good news for both parties, since Anthony will likely get most of his money and the Thunder will be able to avoid some luxury tax considerations.

Now the question is where Anthony will land, with two obvious solutions being the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. Adding Anthony to the Lakers would be in line with their offseason plans of adding every bad, weird, former star player that still is active in the NBA. If he joins Rockets, it’s a rejoining of Anthony with former coach Mike D’Antoni, who will butt heads with him once again as they tried to get him to run within the Rockets system.

No doubt many Houston fans are convincing themselves this very instant that Anthony would be perfect when the Rockets turn to isolation.

“He can be a great pick-and-roll man with either Paul or Harden!”

“He’s an iso player! He’s perfect!”

Houston’s isolation system doesn’t rely on one player to simply score in isolation. Their iso sets are more about getting switches, finding mismatches, then putting players in a position to score off the ball from that isolation as a backup plan. Anthony is the other kind of isolation player, one who does not pass out of those possessions and who will create a dip in efficiency while doing so.

Who knows where Anthony ends up, but just about every rumored landing spot is pure comedy.

Do you have a question about the NBA you need answered? Our PBT Mailbag publishes on Wednesdays, so send your question to have it answered by our team of NBA experts. E-mail us at: pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

Watch Damian Lillard put up 51 on shorthanded 76ers

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Everything is back to normal for Damian Lillard.

The All-Star point guard scored 51 points after a frustrating finish a night earlier, and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers 124-121 on Sunday.

On Saturday against the Los Angeles Clippers, Lillard missed a pair of free throws with 18.6 seconds to go and a 3-pointer with 9.5 seconds left in a 122-117 loss. Clippers players Paul George and Patrick Beverley were seen laughing at Lillard’s misfortune.

Lillard got the last laugh Sunday by scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter.

“It wasn’t really so much my performance yesterday and I wanted to perform a certain way today,” he said. “It was like, we let one slip that we should have had yesterday, and I’m a big part of why it got away from us. So tonight, I was like ‘That’s not going to happen.’”

Portland bounced back and pulled within a half-game of Memphis for eighth place in the Western Conference. The Trail Blazers increased their chances of qualifying for the play-in series, which will start Saturday.

The 76ers lost much more than the game. All-Star center Joel Embiid left in the first quarter with what the team called a left ankle injury, and he did not return. He contested a shot, then backed up and stepped awkwardly into the stanchion. He had been averaging 30 points per game since the restart.

76ers coach Brett Brown wouldn’t say whether Embiid would miss time.

“I’m going to learn more physically,” Brown said. “I don’t know enough to comment on it.”

It was more bad injury news for the 76ers. All-Star point guard Ben Simmons is out indefinitely with an injured left knee.

Josh Richardson scored a season-high 34 points and Alec Burks added 20 for Philadelphia. The 76ers would have moved into a tie with the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat for fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings with a win.

Without their stars, the 76ers fell behind by 17 in the second quarter and trailed 67-58 at halftime.

The game tightened up late. Philadelphia’s Al Horford hit a 3-pointer to trim Portland’s lead to 122-121. Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic made two free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining to put his team up three. Richardson missed a 3-pointer for Philadelphia, and the 76ers couldn’t get another shot off after a scramble for the rebound.

“I thought our guys fought,” Brown said. “I really thought the spirit of the group was fantastic. We called upon many different players that I think played with a spirit and a passion that you’re proud of.”

Zion Williamson, New Orleans eliminated from playoff chase; Kings, too

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There was no team hyped like the New Orleans Pelicans heading into the NBA’s restart in Orlando. They had Zion Williamson healthy (or so they thought), and they had been playing the best of any of the teams in the playoff chase just before the coronavirus shut the league (and nation) down. A basketball-starved nation dreamed of a LeBron James vs. Zion showdown in the first round.

The reality of the bubble was not so kind to those dreams or New Orleans.

The Pelicans lost to the Spurs on Sunday, 122-113, despite 25 points from Williamson. Combined with the Trail Blazers beating the 76ers 124-121, the Pelicans became mathematically eliminated from reaching the nine seed and getting into a play-in series in the West.

The Pelicans are out of the playoffs. New Orleans will go through the motions of two more games in the bubble, but don’t be surprised if key players rest. The Pelicans went 2-4 in the bubble with offensive struggles holding the team back.

The Sacramento Kings also have been eliminated, extending the franchise’s playoff drought to 14 years. The last time the Kings were in the playoffs was 2006.

The Memphis Grizzlies sit as the eighth seed in the West, with Portland the ninth seed and just half-a-game back. San Antonio (one game back of Memphis) and Phoenix (1.5 games back) are both alive in the playoff chase still.

New Orleans getting eliminated ends J.J. Redick‘s playoff streak at 13 seasons, the longest of any active player and tied for seventh-longest all-time (the record is a tie at 19 between Karl Malone and John Stockton, who did it together). Getting eliminated is what leads to a 1000-mile stare meme.

 

 

 

 

Joel Embiid will not return to 76ers game due to left ankle injury

Joel Embiid injury
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Philadelphia’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bubble continues.

Joel Embiid went back to the locker room during the first quarter of the 76ers game against the Trail Blazers and will not return to the court due to a left ankle injury, the team announced, via Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

There are no other details yet on Embiid’s condition. He has been far-and-away the best player on a Philadelphia team that has struggled through the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

The 76ers have already lost Ben Simmons, likely for the rest of this season, due to knee surgery.

Despite the injuries and rough play, Philly was 3-1 entering Sunday. However, the one loss was to red-hot T.J. Warren and Indiana, which essentially locked the 76ers into the six seed (and a likely first-round meeting with Boston).

Embiid is averaging 30 points a game in Orlando and put up a ridiculous 41 points, 21 rebounds line against Indiana.

If Embiid misses much time, the Sixers’ chances against any team near the top of the East are slim. At best.

Play-in series guaranteed in West after Toronto beats Memphis

NBA play-in
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s now official: There will be a play-in series to determine the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Memphis’ 108-99 loss to Toronto on Sunday means that it’s no longer possible for more than a four-game difference in the standings between the eighth- and ninth-place finishers in the West when the seeding game schedule ends later this week.

By the rules the NBA set for this season’s restart, there had to be more than a four-game cushion for the No. 8 team to get the final playoff spot outright. The league decided to add the play-in series option in an abundance of fairness, since about 14% of the regular season schedule was eliminated because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Memphis remains alone in eighth place, even after Sunday’s loss. Portland is one game behind and is in the nine seed (with a Philadelphia Sunday night). San Antonio (who beat New Orleans Sunday) and red-hot Phoenix are 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies. New Orleans is now two games back and with a difficult road to the postseason.

No team has clinched a spot in the play-in series; the Grizzlies could have assured themselves of no worse than that had they beaten the Raptors on Sunday.

Game 1 of the play-in series will be Saturday, with Game 2 — if necessary — the following day, Aug. 16. To advance and face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, the eighth-place team will have to win one of the two games and the ninth-place finisher would have to go 2-0.

ABC will air Game 1 of the play-in series on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Game 2, if necessary, would be Aug. 16 at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN.

There will be no play-in series in the Eastern Conference; Brooklyn and Orlando have secured what were the last two available spots on that bracket, with Washington — the only other team that came to Disney with a chance of qualifying in the East — already eliminated.

The playoffs begin Monday, Aug. 17.

“Obviously, that’s what everybody’s goal is,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said Sunday.

The matchup for the play-in will be known no later than Thursday. There are four seeding games on Friday, the last day of the regular season, though none of them will have any bearing on the West matchup.