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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.

Rumor: Dwight Howard and Chris Paul stated intent to join Mavericks until Howard backed out

Chris Paul and Dwight Howard
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The Mavericks went from winning the 2011 NBA championship to missing the playoffs within two years.

Somewhat by choice.

Of course, they wanted to remain competitive. But they were willing to accept a lower floor to maintain financial flexibility. They let key players – most notably Tyson Chandler – leave in order to chase bigger stars.

Dallas was repeatedly linked to Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, who could’ve become free agents in 2012 but opted in. They finally hit the market in 2013, but once again spurned the Mavericks. Paul re-signed with the Clippers, and Howard left the Lakers for the Rockets.

Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated:

I really think that they, Chris and Dwight, basically wink, wink said they were going to Dallas, from what I’ve heard, and that Dwight backed out.

Word on the street. But we hear a lot of stories. That’s one story I’ve heard.

This is the peril of making arrangements in underground free agency. They’re unbinding. That was especially true with Howard, who waffled through the Dwightmare with the Magic. The Mavericks might have proceeded in the smartest way, but it backfired. Dallas is only now re-emerging upward with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.

This also creates a fun “what if?” How good would Dallas have been? Paul remained elite, but Howard and Dirk Nowitzki were slipping. Where would the Clippers have gone with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan but without Paul? Would they still have held the credibility required to lure Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last summer? Where would Houston have turned without Howard as the star to pair with James Harden?

Serge Ibaka says he nearly goaltended Kawhi Leonard’s iconic shot: ‘I would’ve retired’

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Kawhi Leonard hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history – a buzzer-beater that bounced, bounced, bounced, bounced in during Game 7 of last year’s second-round Raptors-76ers series and propelled Toronto toward an eventual title.

Raptors forward Serge Ibaka, via Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

“I didn’t think it was going in. I was under the basket trying to go for the offensive rebound. The ball was bouncing and one time I was so close to going [for it]. Thank God I didn’t because it could have been goaltending. That would’ve been bad. I would’ve retired. If that had happened I would have retired.”

In hindsight, that would’ve been catastrophic. It would have been been bad at the time, too – but only so bad.

The Bucks, Toronto’s opponent in the Eastern Conference finals, looked better than the Raptors. The Western Conference-winning Warriors were widely viewed as invincible. Few would have thought Ibaka’s goaltend would’ve cost Toronto a championship.

Thankfully for him and the Raptors, we now know better.

Chris Paul refutes report that Michele Roberts is no longer leading union

Michele Roberts, Chris Paul and Luol Deng
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Michele Roberts got a new four-year term as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association in 2018.

Yet, Peter Vecsey tweeted:

The NBPA responded with a statement on behalf of Chris Paul:

NBPA President Chris Paul’s response to the false information tweeted earlier this evening regarding NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts:

“Michele Roberts has been and continues to be our fearless leader. The Twitter post that is circulating suggesting Michele is no longer the NBPA Executive Director is untrue. A Search Firm has been hired to advise on union hiring and succession planning, which has not yet begun. In the meantime, the Executive Committee is proud to report that Michele remains the NBPA Executive Director, is very much “in power,” and continues to enjoy the support of our members!”

Roberts led the union through Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations in 2016. She appears active in running the union now.

Controversially, Roberts rejected cap smoothing when the new national TV deals sent revenue soaring. That adversely affected many union members, though benefited others.

Roberts and Paul have also sometimes prioritized stars, to the dismay of the rank-and-file.

But the overall health of the union appears strong, and Roberts and Paul remain in charge.

‘Off the Dribble’ names All-Sneakerhead team (video)

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On the latest episode of “Off the Dribble,” Jacque Slade named his All-Sneakerhead team. Spoiler alert: The NBA’s shoe king – Rockets forward P.J. Tucker – made it.

Watch to see who else earned a spot.