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Five early takeaways on LeBron James’ Lakers

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LOS ANGELES — The Lakers have played just two preseason games, and preseason contests matter as much as the new basketball Yeezys. Maybe even less. If that’s possible. So take any sweeping conclusions with a full box of Morton’s Kosher salt.

That said, after LeBron James’ preseason debut at home Tuesday night, here are five takeaways about these Lakers so far.

1) LeBron is very, very good at basketball. Thanks, Capt. Obvious. We know that like we know Meryl Streep will get nominated for an Oscar.

Still, watching him take over a game — even a preseason game — reminds us of what a force of nature he can be. And why nobody wants to pick against these Lakers.

Tuesday night against Denver the Lakers got off to a slow start, with LeBron deferring (there was a concerted effort to get Brandon Ingram into a playmaking role) and the offense looking slow and stagnant. Out of an early timeout, LeBron decided it was time to flex his muscles. First, the Lakers ran a horns set with LeBron on one elbow, and he made a clever pass to the cutting JaVale McGee for a bucket. Then LeBron rebounded the ball and led the break before hitting a running jumper that has been a staple his entire career. Next play he gets the rebound and finds Josh Hart on the leak out — LeBron took over, the team got three quick buckets, and the Lakers looked fast and efficient. Plus, he did things like this.

Already you can see how much LeBron is going to have to carry for the Lakers to succeed this season. As SI’s Ben Golliver of noted the Lakers are +14 in two games with LeBron on the court and -33 when he is on the bench (he’s been on the bench for twice as many minutes as he’s played). Yes, there is a lot of noise in that stat — who LeBron is with on the court matters in the mix — but when he is out this team looks lost and when he is in, they make plays.

Bottom line, the Lakers’ playoff hopes are all about LeBron taking over stretches of games. Two preseason games in, we know he can still do this as well as anyone.

2) Does Luke Walton trust the young Lakers or veteran Lakers more? Tuesday night, Walton started second-year player Josh Hart at the two guard spot over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. It’s just one preseason game, but that’s a very good sign.

There are a few big questions about these Lakers, but none matters more to the team’s future than this: Does Walton trust and lean on the young Lakers — Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, etc. — when the pressure is on, or does he go with the veterans such as Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson?

So far things seem split, but starting Hart over KCP is a sign which direction things are going.

“Whenever I start, I’m usually a little more aggressive on the offensive end,” Hart said after the game. “It was really good to get out and run with those guys. I didn’t have the opportunity to get out and run with those guys as much in the first game, so it was good to get out there with the ball movement.”

None of those veterans on one-year deals are part of the future in Los Angeles. For the Lakers’ long-term success with LeBron (the three seasons after this one), they need this young core to become guys who can give quality minutes on a contending team. Ingram is at the top of that list, he needs to prove to be a No. 2 or No. 3 option on a title team, which is why we saw such a concerted effort to get him the ball early. Ingram said after the game he and LeBron are developing some real chemistry.

Rondo and McGee have played well so far as starters and both certainly have key roles on this team. However, for the long-haul, it has to be the youth. Expect Walton to lean on those young stars more and more as the season goes on… if he doesn’t, that’s a troubling sign.

3) When they ran, the Lakers’ had moments of genuine promise. The Lakers’ spurts in this game came when they ran — the passing was sharp, the ball moved, and the energy was up. The Lakers looked dynamic in transition.

That should only get better when Lonzo Ball returns to the rotation.

The Lakers’ chemistry is a work in progress, but when they get out and run they have a real flow — and they’re fun. If the Lakers are going to succeed this year they will be playing at one of the faster paces in the NBA.

However…

4) To run consistently requires defense and rebounding, and the Lakers have not been dedicated to that. The best transition teams — from the Showtime Lakers through the current Warriors — know that to truly be elite in transition means getting stops. For the second game in a row, the Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets carved up the Lakers�� defense with their passing, although the Lakers thought Game 2 went better than their first preseason game. Still, the Lakers were not consistently communicating well on screens or closing out on shooters. When the Lakers did play good defense and force a miss, they too often struggled to secure the defensive rebound, and so the process restarted itself.

Denver is an elite offense that makes a lot of defenses look bad, but in a deep West the Lakers are going to run into great offenses, or at least good ones, every night. The Laker defense was solid last season, it cannot take a step back.

The Lakers’ got boards and made stops in stretches (which led to their transition game), but it wasn’t consistent. The issues were particularly noticeable when they went small. Which brings us to…

5) Los Angeles is trying to make small ball work, but they have a way to go. It’s a strange thing to type, but the Lakers really need JaVale McGee right now. After him, the Lakers are thin at center and the quality drops off fast.

Luke Walton knew that going into camp, which is why the Kyle Kuzma at center experiment continues — sliding a natural three down to the five slot is a fun preseason experiment, but defensively it can’t last. For two games in a row, Nikola Jokic has eaten Kuzma’s lunch. Granted, Jokic is a top 20-25 NBA player (and on the rise) who a lot of regular centers struggle to slow down, but even if Kuzma is matched up against a natural four he will struggle to stop them. It’s not his game.

To reiterate a theme here, Lakers’ offense looks great when they get out in transition — we’ve covered that in No. 3 above — and the small ball look is an effort to capitalize on it. However, the small ball lineups may require a superhuman LeBron (something that can happen nightly) to really work for now. The Lakers will be fun and fast when they go small, but if it’s just a shootout and they don’t get some stops it doesn’t help as much as it should.

Australian NBL pumps breaks on report LaMelo Ball has bought a team

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It was a stunning headline, especially considering LaMelo Ball is just 18:

He bought a team in the Australian National Basketball League, specifically the Illawarra Hawks, the team he played for some last season. It’s an insane story.

And it’s not quite true. At least not yet. The NBL released a statement that pumped the breaks on the idea of a sale to Ball and his manager, Jermaine Jackson. Part of the statement reads:

“The league can confirm LaMelo Ball and his management had discussions about being involved with the club while he was playing in the NBL last season. At this point we are continuing to work with current licence holder Simon Stratford on a number of options for what we hope will be a fruitful outcome for Illawarra and the NBL.

The NBL has final approval on any transfer of licence and no application has been made to date. The NBL has no further comment at this stage.

Did LaMelo and his manager jump the gun? Or, is this a negotiating ploy by the NBL and Stratford to get more money by jacking up the price on a sale?

Those two follow a host of other questions, including what percentage of the team would Ball and his manager own? What would their involvement be?

Ineligible for college stateside, Ball chose to play in Australia under the NBL’s Next Stars program. It worked, he’s projected to be a top-five, maybe top-three pick. He left the NBL after suffering a season-ending foot injury, although that came under a cloud of criticism from Hawks owner Stratford.

The ultimate revenge would be to buy the team, if that is actually happening.

Doc Rivers’ reaction when Clippers traded for Lou Williams, “I was not having Lou”

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Lou Williams is integral to the Clippers’ title dreams.

Since coming to the Clippers, he has averaged 20.6 points a game off the bench, twice winning Sixth Man of the Year, and his pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell is as smooth and dangerous a combo as there is in the league. Come the playoffs, while teams are trying to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Lou Williams will be a change of pace scorer with a second unit that can quickly tilt the game towards Los Angeles.

But when Williams first got to the Clippers, Doc Rivers was not thrilled.

Rivers talked about Williams on The Bob Ryan and Jeff Goodman Podcast (hat tip SI).

“When we traded for Lou, I was not having Lou,” Rivers said. “I saw a guy that kept getting traded. And I appreciated his offense, but not nearly, never thought it was this good… When he finally showed up three days before training camp, I was not having him. I was like, ‘We’re not gonna work’, you know?..

“I brought him up in the office and I told him my feelings,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘Lou, you’re one of these guys that wanna do whatever you wanna do, and you don’t want to buy-in. We asked everybody to come in. Everyone did except for you… I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been traded five years in a row. Why would I buy-in to you?’, and I didn’t have an answer.”

Both Williams and Rivers have bought into each other now. Williams has control of the offense when he is in and Rivers said he just wants Williams to “be in the right place” on defense. That defense leads to issues playing Williams at the end of big games, but used as a scorer Williams is tough to deal with.

He can still get buckets with the best of them.

 

For NBA coaches, the new game is a waiting game

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MIAMI (AP) — Orlando’s Steve Clifford figures he’s like every other NBA coach right now: Wake up, go to whatever now serves as the office, study his own team, maybe think about possible opponents, and resume planning.

Of course, nobody knows what they’re planning for — or when these plans will get used.

A stoppage in play doesn’t mean vacation time has arrived for NBA coaches, especially those like Clifford in position to take their teams to the postseason — assuming this pandemic-interrupted season is able to resume. They’re all spending more time at home, not able to run practices, but none seem to be sitting idly either.

“Not knowing the restart date is the toughest challenge professionally,” Clifford said. “Obviously, we’re all limited in what we can do, and basketball takes a back seat right now to family and health. But I will say this: When I talk to our guys, the one common question that comes up is ‘When do you think we can start again?’”

And that’s a question with no answer. The waiting game is the only game in town right now.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was coaching the fourth quarter against Charlotte on March 11 when the NBA announced it was suspending the season, a move made once it became known that Utah center Rudy Gobert was the league’s first player to test positive for COVID-19. Spoelstra found out right after the final buzzer, as he walked to the Heat locker room.

He instantly realized that losing to the Hornets that night didn’t ultimately matter much. Spoelstra and his staff are holding Zoom meetings every other day, but he’s also enjoying the benefits of time away — getting more time with his two young sons, his wife and grilling for the family most nights — and is emphasizing to his coaches and players that this is a time to help those less fortunate.

He’s checking the news as well, on a limited basis.

“My routine is checking after dinner, and I usually get on my computer, watch a little bit of what’s going on,” said Spoelstra, who often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with “Stay Positive” and like many coaches he taped a video telling fans the importance of hand-washing and other precautions. “So, I’m staying abreast of the current status of things, but I definitely do not try to start my day that way and I do not obsess about it during the day.”

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle also went the video-message route, doing one for the going-stir-crazy crowd to demonstrate his “Balance, Balance, Shot Drill” that allows players to work on their shooting form even when they don’t have access to a court or a rim.

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan took advantage of downtime to appear on a virtual coaches clinic, and had a safety message for those who attended — online, of course — before spending about an hour breaking down his philosophy.

This is the first in-season stoppage of its kind in NBA history, but Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is equating the unknown — in terms of when the next game will be — to what the league went through with lockout-shortened seasons in 1998-99 and 2011-12.

His message to his staff: Things may be slow now, but when the suspension ends the pace of everything will be frantic. So while some projects like things in the video room and breakdowns of his roster are being tackled, Budenholzer is also having staff get ready for potential playoff opponents with a first-round series against either Brooklyn or Orlando likely for the NBA-leading Bucks.

“Things happen really fast, whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker,” Budenholzer said. “We can put a little bit of money in the bank now with preparation for first round but also if you go a little bit deeper, the East.”

For 30 teams, 30 coaches, there’s many ways to spend the down time.

And they all know that they’re in the same boat — waiting and wondering.

“It’s hard for all of us,” Clifford said. “It’s hard to set a plan for yourself that will have you ready. But that’s the parallel, not just for us, but for everyone around the world no matter what profession that you’re in.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci was a high school point guard

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You know Dr. Anthony Fauci as the guy trying to inject facts and reason-based decisions into the federal government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. You’ve seen him, the guy with the Sisyphean task of standing behind President Donald Trump at press conferences and not reacting with shock or disgust.

It turns out he was a high school baller.

In a profile of Fauci, the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen wrote about Fauci the high school point guard, who led his 1-16 team to a win against Fordham Prep, led by future Knicks executive Donnie Walsh.

Classic point guard, excellent ballhandler, pesky defender. Six of his classmates and teammates described him as a tenacious competitor in short shorts and striped socks whose feistiness on the court defied some parts of his personality and reflected others.

That sounds like a young version of the person he is now.

Dr. Fauci is one of the people the NBA is listening to as it tries to figure out if or when the league can re-start and what its next steps might be. Right now, all of that is beyond the NBA’s control and more in the hands of the rest of us and whether we as a society follow Dr. Fauci’s suggestions.