Getty Images

How will Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, rest of young Lakers fit with LeBron James?

3 Comments

This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the young Lakers as the focus.

LeBron James changes everything.

His presence changes the trajectory of the Lakers. The team spent the past few years drafting and developing a young core of players, building a base the way most teams need to build, slowly and learning from mistakes while taking some lumps along the way.

Then the Lakers land LeBron.

It changes everything — especially for that young core.

“There’s who you expect to be and then who you are when you play with LeBron. It’s two different things,” Channing Frye said this summer about those young Lakers. “I don’t know if they truly understand what it’s like to play with him because there is no room for mistakes. Because in all actuality, he could do it himself. He could lead a team to 40 wins by himself. I think for all of them they’re going to have to have a reality check, not only them but the people around them. There’s going to say, not a growing period, but a humility.”

It’s maybe the biggest question for the Lakers this season: Will Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma be on the floor with LeBron to close games for Los Angeles this season? Or, will Luke Walton have to turn to Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and JaVale McGee?

How will each of the young Lakers fit and benefit from playing with LeBron? Let’s take a look at them.

Brandon Ingram

If one player from this Lakers’ youth movement is going to break out as an All-Star and top 20 NBA player it’s Ingram — which puts the most pressure on him to step up now. How good the Lakers are this season will start with how big a step forward Ingram takes. He needs to live up to being the No. 2 option on this team and show he can handle that role. He needs to establish himself — in his own mind and LeBron’s — so he remains the second or third best player on a potential contending team if/when the Lakers land another star next summer. (I think they will get someone, whether it’s the star they want is another question.)

Ingram impressed last season, growing into a role as a scorer and shot creator — in February he averaged 18.6 points per game with a 62.1 true shooting percentage (he strained his hip on March 1 and played just three games after, a reminder he needs to stay healthy, too). Last season, 53.8 percent of his used possessions (meaning he shot, passed or turned the ball over) came as the pick-and-roll ball handler or in isolation. He had the ball in his hands.

Ingram will have to adjust to having the ball less, LeBron will be the fulcrum of the offense most of the time, as he should be, plus this team is loaded with other players — Rondo, Ball, Stephenson, Beasley — who need touches. However, unlike much of last season, Ingram will no longer be the name at the top of opponent’s scouting reports. Ingram’s versatility should be on full display and make him especially dangerous next to LeBron. Ingram will need to draw defenders with plays off-the-ball — he was a very good spot-up shooter last season and hit 39 percent from three (although on less than two attempts per game, he needs to shoot it more) — but more importantly he needs to be the secondary scorer and guy attacking the rim with the ball when defenses are scrambling.

If the Lakers are going to thrive this season, Ingram will need to have a breakout season.

Lonzo Ball

Last season the Lakers learned that having him run a ton of pick-and-roll is not the best use of his talents. What is coming, with LeBron as the primary ball handler/shot creator could be a better fit — Lonzo will keep the ball moving and the pace up, he is a high IQ player who makes good cuts off the ball, and he and Kyle Kuzma can maybe get some second-unit time together to show their transition magic. Lonzo played off the ball a lot at UCLA (paired with Aaron Holiday, now of the Pacers) and his new role may be akin to that. Ball may be more comfortable in the Lakers’ new style.

However, Ball simply has to be a bigger scoring threat for this to work. Yes, that means his reworked jump shot needs to fall more, but Ball also shot just 49.4 percent in the restricted area — he has to finish better at the rim and in the paint.

He has to be a threat to score every time he touches the ball, or the impact of his brilliant passing is dampened. His defense and rebounding are good, better than expected, but it’s his offense that could hold him back. Beyond that, this season he needs to stay healthy, having played just 52 games last season. The fact he is going to training camp with his knee not yet fully healed from off-season meniscus surgery is not a good start.

Rondo is a Laker now, and Josh Hart has to get minutes and certainly can play the point. While the team will spin that as depth and insurance at the position, it’s also a message to Lonzo — “we’ve got your replacement right here if needed.” This is LeBron’s team now, and if Lonzo’s father or the circus around him becomes too big a distraction, well, the Lakers have a lot of depth at point guard and can jettison one of them. Same if the fit is not working on the court. There is no more growing into the role for Lonzo, he needs to step up this season.

Kyle Kuzma

The fit between LeBron and Kuzma seems like it could be natural. Kuzma thrived with Ball and Ingram as the creators by working off the ball, spacing the floor, finishing at the rim, and getting out in transition to the tune of 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, plus shooting 36.6 percent from three. With the passing of LeBron — and Ball, and Rondo, and most of this team — Kuzma could thrive in the role as a finisher.

It’s the other end of the floor that could hold Kuzma back — he has to defend better, well enough stay on the court. Kuzma’s defense was okay when his decision tree was small — close out on a spot up guy, switch onto and defend a big on a pick-and-roll — but he has to show more feel for the game and ability to read the play now. Experience should help with that, and LeBron can undoubtedly mentor Kuzma on the mental aspects of the game. This is where he needs to step up, if he doesn’t his role will shrink.

Josh Hart

While he can play the point, expect him to get time as a backup two guard behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. However you want to define his role, his MVP performance in Summer League showed it’s not going to be easy to keep him off the court. He can create shots for himself and finish, he shot 39.3 percent from three last season, and he’s getting better at creating some for others, too. With the plethora of ball handlers on this team roles will shift, Hart will not get to dominate the ball like in Summer League. He needs to show he can still make plays.

When Hart gets his windows, he needs to play so well it’s hard for Luke Walton to sub him out.

Svi Mykhailiuk

There are a lot of people both internally with the Lakers and around the team who think the Lakers could have a draft steal here. Maybe. He had a quality showing at Summer League — not only did he put up points, but he also showed some versatility and defense in his game — but that comes with the asterisk it’s Summer League. There is potential here, but I’m not sure how much run the rookie can really get on a win now team with a lot of veterans — vets on one-year contracts, so they want minutes and numbers — ahead of him. That said, being around the work ethic and game IQ of LeBron is going to help Mykhailiuk develop faster into whatever he will become.

Pelicans to play Anthony Davis against Pacers tomorrow

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
1 Comment

The Pelicans clearly don’t want to play Anthony Davis anymore. Some members of the organization reportedly even thought the team would no longer do it.

But Davis said he wants to play, and the NBA reportedly threatened to fine New Orleans if he didn’t play.

So, the player and league are winning out.

Scott Kushner of The Advocate:

After playing at the Pacers on Friday and hosting the Lakers on Saturday, New Orleans has two straight nationally televised games – vs. the 76ers on Monday and at the Lakers on Wednesday. Once those nationally televised games are behind them, that might be the time for the Pelicans to revisit the issue.

This remains a complex situation. Davis is an excellent player, and it’d be a black mark for the league if he’s a healthy scratch for the rest of the season. But New Orleans should also have a right to protect its asset – especially because Davis decided he no longer wanted to be there. If he suffers serious injury that lowers his trade value, it’d be a catastrophe.

We might not see another showdown like this with a player of Davis’ caliber and a trade-request complication. But until the NBA addresses tanking, we’ll continue to see different versions of this problem.

Tanking tension central to Anthony Davis drama

AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman
3 Comments

NBA teams collectively play 2,460 games each season.

Too few of those games matter.

A few weeks ago, Anthony Davis decided it was no longer worth trying to accomplish his goals with the Pelicans. His trade request derailed New Orleans’ season, and there has been only more difficulty since the team kept him past the trade deadline. Davis has faced immense criticism for making his trade request in-season rather than waiting until the summer.

But teams frequently make a similar determination – that it’s no longer worth trying to accomplish their season goals – well before the season ends.

The most common form of tanking is a team entering the season with playoff aspirations, losing more than hoped then pivoting into more-intended losing down the stretch. Those teams reduce playing time for better veterans and turn toward younger players less-equipped to win presently. Future seasons become the priority well before the current season ends.

The Davis situation is just a version of that.

It might be a long time until a player as good as Davis requests a trade, let alone during a season. But unless the NBA addresses its draft system, there will continue to be weeks of miserable games in the second half of seasons.

The league can try to force teams to play good players. The league can change lottery odds. The league can even pressure teams to oust executives who push tanking to the extreme.

But problems will remain as long as draft positioning is tied to inverse standings. The incentive to lose might be reduced, but it’s still way stronger than the incentive to win extra games late in a losing season.

What do the Suns, Knicks, Cavaliers, Bulls and Hawks have to play for the rest of the season? Winning a few extra games won’t change perception of those teams or draw a significant number of fans. But extra wins would reduce those teams’ odds of drafting a franchise-changer.

The Pelicans face a similar situation. They want to escape the season with Davis healthy and his trade value fully intact. They want a higher draft pick. They care less about winning down the stretch.

The script is flipped because Davis put them into this position. If he hadn’t requested a trade, New Orleans would likely be making a longshot playoff pursuit.

But the result is the same – many remaining games the team doesn’t care about winning or even actively prefers to lose.

There have been numerous suggestions, some even two extreme for me.

The Wheel has been the most popular of those. Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren’s proposal gives each team a pick in each segment of the draft in a rotating basis over a multi-year period. The draft order is completely decoupled from record. Each team is on identical footing for the draft.

But I think losing teams should get a leg up in the draft. The NBA is trying to engage all its fanbases. Winning comes with the joy of winning. Losing comes with hope. If losing teams didn’t have the upside of a higher draft pick, their fans would completely lose interest.

A shorter schedule would compact the standings and delay losing teams’ decisions to punt the season. But that’s a non-starter. Nobody is surrendering revenue by eliminating games. Besides, a longer season benefits fans, especially those who are the fringe of being able to afford tickets. A higher supply of games drives down ticket prices.

The NBA is threatening to fine teams for sitting healthy players. But that policy is far too arbitrary for me. Davis obviously draws league scrutiny. But what about Enes Kanter with the Knicks? What about Eric Bledsoe with the Suns in 2017? I prefer clear lines then allowing teams to operate within them.

My general suggestion: Give teams one lottery combination for each loss until they’re eliminated from the playoff race then, thereafter, one lottery combination for each win. Only non-playoff teams get put in the lottery.

There are plenty of ways to tweak it. Maybe teams should get more lottery combinations for the early losses or late wins. Maybe something needs to be done about conference disparity changing when teams are eliminated. How many teams to draw in the lottery and how many to slot and in what order must be determined.

But the general outcome would be awarding higher draft picks to bad teams – especially those that compete to the end of the season.

The NBA would be healthier if teams cared about winning more games.

Winning their remaining games this season is no longer the Pelicans’ priority. They want to protect their most valuable trade asset and improve draft position. Davis’ trade request obviously makes this a unique situation.

But plenty of teams annually sit their top players late in losing seasons without those players first requesting a trade. The problem runs much wider than Davis and New Orleans.

What to watch after All-Star break: Playoff races, LeBron James passing Michael Jordan and more

Harry How/Getty Images
2 Comments

MIAMI (AP) — Golden State is still the favorite for a fourth title in five years.

Milwaukee, Toronto, Indiana, Boston, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Denver, can all go ahead and cancel those mid-April vacation plans if they were foolish enough to have made them in the first place.

For LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, some work awaits them.

The All-Star break ends Thursday, with about one-third of the season remaining for most clubs – and that means the playoff push now gets very serious. Nobody has officially clinched a spot yet, though it would take a highly improbable series of events for the current top teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences to miss the postseason.

“Every year is a new challenge, different circumstances,” Golden State guard Stephen Curry said. “We are motivated. We understand what’s at stake.”

James has been to the NBA Finals in each of the last eight seasons, all out of the East – four with Miami, four with Cleveland. His Los Angeles Lakers currently are 10th in the West, three games behind the Clippers for the final playoff berth.

James has been to the playoffs in 13 consecutive seasons.

“I hope that first off, we all get healthy,” Lakers President Magic Johnson said. “This has been one of the worst seasons I’ve ever been around Laker basketball as far as injuries are concerned. When we were healthy, we were in fourth place. Now we’re like 10th place. But when you’ve got LeBron James, anything is possible.”

The Miami Heat are part of a six-team, three-spot race in the East, and Wade is hoping for one last postseason trip out of his 16th and final season. Heat President Pat Riley said he thinks the way the Heat ended its pre-All-Star schedule – with a 2-3 road trip, though one where Miami could have won four of the games – is a good sign.

“It looks as though there’s something happening here,” Riley said.

Sacramento is right in the race to end the NBA’s longest current playoff drought; the Kings haven’t been to the postseason since 2006. Phoenix’s drought will hit nine straight seasons, but Orlando – currently holders of the third-longest drought at six seasons – hit the break with a five-game winning streak and is in the East mix.

“I think we feel good about ourselves,” Magic All-Star forward Nikola Vucevic said. “I know we have good confidence.”

Here’s some other things to know going into the final third of the season:

LEBRON AND MICHAEL

LeBron James is finally going to pass Michael Jordan.

In scoring, at least.

While the debate will rage forever about which player is better, James will soon have scored more points than Jordan. James is 211 points shy of passing Jordan (32,292) for the No. 4 spot in NBA history. When he gets there, each of the top four spots on that list will be occupied by current or former Los Angeles Lakers – No. 1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,392), No. 2 Karl Malone (36,928), No. 3 Kobe Bryant (33,643), and James.

SCORING AND PACE

Unless every team drastically changes the way it plays over the next two months – which won’t happen – the league will finish this season with its highest scoring average and fastest pace in 30 years.

Teams are averaging 110.7 points and 100 possessions per game this season. That’s the best scoring number since 1984-85 (110.8 points per game) and fastest pace since 1988-89 (100.6 possessions per game).

All 30 teams are on pace to average at least 100 points per game this season. The last time every team in the league averaged 100 was 1986-87, when the NBA had 23 franchises.

3’S ARE WILD

The NBA is on pace to see records in 3-pointers made and 3-pointers attempted. If that sounds like an annual statement, it is: This will be the seventh consecutive season where both marks fall.

Houston’s James Harden has a shot at the record for 3s in a single season. He has 274 (which would be fifth-best for a season already), putting him on pace for 401 if he plays in all 25 of the Rockets’ remaining games. Golden State’s Stephen Curry holds the mark with 402 makes from deep in 2015-16.

Harden seems like a lock for the 3s-taken record – Curry took 886 in his record-setting year, Harden has 733 now and is on pace for 1,072.

MORE HARDEN

The Houston All-Star is in the throes of a historic offensive season.

Harden’s current scoring average – 36.6 points per game – would be eighth-best all-time, and the best mark since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 points in 1986-87. Jordan (once), Elgin Baylor (once) and Wilt Chamberlain (five times) are the only players to finish a season with a higher average than the one Harden is toting now.

Harden leads Oklahoma City’s Paul George by 7.9 points per game in this year’s scoring race. That is an enormous number. To put that in perspective: If George stays at his current scoring rate, 28.7 per game, Harden would remain the NBA’s scoring leader even if he went scoreless in each of his next 14 games.

GOOD BUCKS

Already with 43 wins this season, it’s already safe to say this the best year for Milwaukee in a long time.

The Bucks won 44 games last season, and 46 in 2009-10. This will almost certainly be Milwaukee’s first 50-win year since 2000-01 (52-30), and the Bucks could flirt with their first 60-win year since 1980-81. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer says he joined Milwaukee at the perfect time.

“The fans there, the energy in our arena, it’s off the charts,” Budenholzer said. “New practice facility, a roster that’s in a great place, ownership, front office – everything is just really, really set up to have great success.”

BAD KNICKS

David Fizdale, the very likable and highly respected first-year Knicks coach is overseeing a team that’s on pace for 16 wins – which would be the worst record in franchise history. Obviously, it’s all about the draft and free agency for the Knicks, who are in position to be major players when the NBA’s annual superstar-shopping window opens on July 1.

Phoenix is also on pace to have its worst season ever. Chicago and Cleveland probably won’t hit all-time rock bottom, but look like they’ll come close. In all, four teams will likely finish the season with a winning percentage under .250 – the most since six teams were that bad in the 1997-98 season.

The draft lottery is May 14, and that’s when the Knicks, Suns, Bulls and Cavaliers could declare this season’s suffering worthwhile.

Report: Zion Williamson has insurance policy… that almost certainly won’t matter

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

How bad of an injury would Zion Williamson have to suffer to slip past the No. 16 pick in the NBA draft?

Thankfully, it sounds as if last night’s knee injury isn’t it. Duke is calling it a mild knee sprain.

I’m not sure an injury that drops Williamson below No. 16 exists, anyway. Williamson has played so well this season. No other elite prospects have emerged. It seems no matter what happened to Williamson, a team would pick him way higher than No. 17.

Yet, that’s apparently how far Williamson would have to fall in order to collect an insurance payout.

Darren Rovell of ESPN:

Williamson didn’t enter college as the overwhelming top prospect. That top-16 cutoff probably made sense at the time the policy was written.

But now it’s practically irrelevant.

Williamson is stuck earning only the NCAA’s cartel-capped compensation without that safety net.