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With LeBron James gone, Eastern Conference set for a new champion

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The roadblock has been removed. With LeBron James gone, the path to the NBA Finals from the Eastern Conference is open again.

Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto and more are hoping to win the race to it.

James ruled over the East for eight years, making four straight trips to the finals from Miami and then moving back to Cleveland in 2014 and getting there every year since.

From Boston to Indiana, up north in Toronto all the way down to Atlanta, teams would emerge with what they thought was a title contender only to see James send them home for the summer.

Now King James has abdicated his throne and moved to Los Angeles, and there should be rejoicing in the land he left behind.

“It’s a new lease on life in the Eastern Conference,” said Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Reggie Miller, who faced a similar situation when he played in the East during the era of Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

“It’s great that LeBron has taken his talents out West because it opens up the doors for not only a lot of these young players, but these organizations now. Fresh blood, something new to kind of see who can compete for that Eastern crown.”

The Celtics nearly won it last year, falling to the Cavaliers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. They were without the injured Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and now that the two stars are healthy and have rejoined Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and the rest of a deep team that made a valiant run without them, Boston is probably the favorite in the East.

But there’s intrigue beyond that, which rarely existed during James’ reign. Philadelphia finished strong in its first season with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons playing together, and now might get a full one with 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz joining them after his shoulder problems last season.

Toronto shook up a 59-win team by firing coach Dwane Casey and shipping DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio in the trade for Kawhi Leonard, and Indiana bolstered a team that took Cleveland to seven games in the first round.

Any of them have a chance to get to the place that James wouldn’t let them.

“An appearance in the finals is going to be sweet,” Embiid said.

A look at the East, in predicted order of finish:

PLAYOFF BOUND

1. Boston – Depth of talent is not only tops in the East, but comes closest in the NBA to rivaling Golden State’s.

2. Philadelphia – If either Simmons or Fultz develops a jump shot to open things up more for Embiid, look out.

3. Indiana – Victor Oladipo has emerged as an All-Star and the Pacers are balanced behind him.

4. Toronto – If Leonard is fully healthy and motivated, Raptors added a top-five player to a 59-win team.

5. Milwaukee – Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to make the Bucks fun to watch in their new arena.

6. Washington – John Wall and Bradley Beal will give the Wizards plenty on the perimeter, but they need Dwight Howard provide a boost on the interior.

7. Miami – Heat won’t want to send Dwyane Wade into retirement without one final playoff appearance.

8. Detroit – A full season with Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin together should be enough to get the Pistons back into the postseason.

IN THE MIX

9. Cleveland – Kevin Love and the remainder of the Cavaliers that James left behind should still be good enough to fight for a spot in the top eight.

10. Charlotte – The Hornets will host an All-Star Game in February. They’ll try to host playoff games in April.

FACING LONG ODDS

11. Orlando – Steve Clifford is the latest coach to try to mix a collection of young players into one that can defend enough to be a decent team.

12. Brooklyn – Nets made a seven-win improvement last season even while being dismal at defending and rebounding. Do either better and they can take another leap.

13. New York – Kristaps Porzingis remains out indefinitely while rehabbing a torn ACL, so new coach David Fizdale will give rookie Kevin Knox an early green light.

14. Atlanta – Trae Young may be exciting to watch, but he won’t be able to stop another long season of losing in Atlanta.

15. Chicago – The Bulls of Tom Thibodeau were veterans who always defended hard. The Bulls of Fred Hoiberg have been none of the above.

 

LeBron, Anthony Davis and… Kemba? What are the Lakers next steps to contention

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We have seen this before, the Lakers add a superstar player — Pau Gasol via trade, Shaquille O’Neal via free agency— and instantly vault up to being a title contender.

Of course, we have seen the Lakers add superstars in the offseason — say Dwight Howard and Steve Nash — and watch the whole thing blow up due to injuries and chemistry issues.

Neither of these scenarios is completely off the table with the LeBron James and Anthony Davis Lakers, which is coming together now after the Lakers have agreed to a trade for Davis that sends Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and three first round picks (including the No. 4 pick in the 2019 Draft) to New Orleans.

The Lakers look like contenders on paper right now, but they have to round out the roster in a smart way.

Two key things will differentiate success and failure with these Lakers.

First is injuries. It’s obvious to state, but Davis has an injury history, and LeBron missed 18 games with a groin injury last season, the most time he has ever missed with an injury, but that’s what comes with age.

Second is how the Lakers round out the roster. After the trade, the Lakers will have LeBron, Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga… and that’s it. They need to add 10 players.

The Lakers will have $27.7 million available in cap space on July 1 — that is not enough to sign Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker to max deals. Both of them have been linked to the Lakers on various levels.

Sources have told me that after qualifying for a “supermax” contract extension (five years, $221 million), Walker is leaning heavily toward staying in Charlotte, a city he has grown to love (and his family enjoys). He could even give the Hornets a little hometown discount on the back end of that deal and have more than the max the Lakers or any other team could offer him. The question is, does this trade and the chance to chase a ring alter Walker’s thinking?

Butler, also, reportedly is leaning toward re-signing with the Sixers if they offer him a full five-year, $191 million max deal as expected (with Butler’s injury history, that fifth year only Philly can offer will matter to him).

What the Lakers could do, as suggested by cap guru and consultant to NBA teams and agents Larry Coon, is to draft whoever the Pelicans want, sign that player July 1, then trade him 30 days later (the first chance he is eligible) as part of the Davis deal. Do that and the Lakers would have the $32.5 needed for a max slot.

Are the Lakers better off not chasing a star and using that free agency money to land three or more quality, solid NBA rotation players? That’s an internal discussion they need to have.

Beyond that, the Lakers will have the room exception at $4.8 million and no other space.

Just like last year, the Lakers will need to bring in veterans on minimum contracts — and this time they may want to get some shooting in the mix. The challenge there is guys are taking minimum contracts for a reason, if they could secure longer and more lucrative deals they would. There are far fewer vets willing to take a lot less to chase a ring than fans realize.

Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart seem happy with trade; Twitter blows up over deal

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The Toronto Raptors got to have the basketball world to themselves for 43 hours…

And then the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis. The deal is Davis to the Lakers for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and three first-round picks, including the 2019 pick in this upcoming draft.

There was plenty of bad chemistry with the Lakers after the trade deadline and how an attempt to trade for Davis went down, so maybe we shouldn’t be shocked Ingram and Hart seem just fine with this deal.

LaVar Ball was at the Drew League in Los Angeles, watching his son LaMelo play when the news came down.

Of course, social media blew up around the NBA when the trade was announced.

twitter.com/Kneel2ThaCrown/status/1140028038995947520

And this is just awkward…

Report: Anthony Davis traded to Lakers for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, picks

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LeBron James has his second star next to him.

Anthony Davis has landed exactly where he wanted.

Things had been building toward this for more than a week. Boston was holding back — meaning they would not put Jayson Tatum in an offer. The Clippers and Nets couldn’t get any traction. And there were the Lakers with a quality package that was as good as it was likely going to get.

In the end, that deal — one the Pelicans did not take at the trade deadline — got it done.

Anthony Davis is on his way to the Lakers for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and three first-round picks including this year’s No. 4, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The trade will not be formally consummated until after July 1 for salary cap reasons, but it’s done.

Pelicans’ new president David Griffin came in with an open mind and clean slate. At the trade deadline there was a “we’re not going to send Davis where he wants” mentality from New Orleans. Pelicans management felt put on the spot by the timing and public nature of the trade request by Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, and they didn’t want to feel rushed into a trade they didn’t want.

Griffin, however, saw the big picture — take the best offer, the trade isn’t about where Davis lands, it’s what’s best for New Orleans. That could have been Boston, but with Kyrie Irving having one foot out the door and almost certainly not re-signing with the team, the Celtics couldn’t go all-in on an offer and give the Pelicans what they wanted — Jayson Tatum.

No Tatum offer meant Lakers GM Rob Pelinka had leverage, so he was able to keep Kyle Kuzma out of any trade, something that mattered to Los Angeles.

While how the Lakers round out their roster will matter — they may want to add some shooting this time — this trade vaults them into contender status, especially in a West with an injury-riddled Golden State squad.

This may have been the Lakers only viable path to a star this summer, the star free agent market was not — and is not — lining up to be kind to them. Even with this trade. Which is why this is a move the Lakers had to pull off.

They did. This is a big win for a Lakers’ front office that has been maligned and called dysfunctional around the sudden stepping down of Magic Johnson.

Davis will play out his contract and become a free agent, something reported by Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, but also obvious under the current salary cap rules. Davis’ max extension is two-years, $67 million in addition to his current deal (and it could be less than that if he gave up some of his trade kicker in this deal), his free agent contract will be five-years pushing $200 million. That is a no brainer. He will re-sign with the Lakers.

The Pelicans got a serious haul here that jumpstarts a rebuild: Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram as the forwards, whoever they take with the No. 4 pick (or trade that pick for, a real possibility), Lonzo Ball will play alongside Jrue Holiday, who is primarily a two-guard now (and Ball should thrive in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo system, it plays to his strengths), Josh Hart is a solid role player. That is a team that could hang around and compete for a playoff spot in the West if things break right for them.

Just picture Lonzo throwing lobs to Zion. This team is going to be fun.

Beyond that, if Williamson develops into who many think he can be — a top-five kind of player in the league — the Pelicans may be a force in about 2023, right as the LeBron era in Los Angeles winds down.

 

Adam Silver hopes lottery changes, recent results will slow down tanking

Associated Press
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The NBA league office HATES tanking.

The league hates that teams see it as a strategy, and they hate the idea that there are fan bases actively rooting for their team to lose. The league sees that as a destructive force. What the fans see is a shot at Zion Williamson (or, the next great player). So the league changed around the lottery odds this season, and the Pelicans (with just a six percent chance at it) jumped up to the No. 1 spot, while the teams with the three worst records will pick third, fifth, and sixth.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Rachel Nichols of ESPN he hopes the lottery changes, and the most recent results, end the worst of tanking (via Royce Young at ESPN).

“Where I think it’s the greatest success is, hopefully it’ll stop fans in those markets from rooting for their teams to perform poorly,” Silver said prior to Game 6 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. “Because that race to the bottom is just destructive, I think, for everyone. Corrosive for players and franchises, and I think, in some cases, even some executives who knew better felt they couldn’t withstand the pressure from the communities, from the media in some cases, saying, ‘Why are you operating at this level when you should either get much better or much worse?’…

“I think in this case now with the change in the lottery, people are going to realize that there’s only one way to build a franchise,” Silver said. “Of course, you need to get great players, but at the same time you need to build culture, you need strong management, you need strong coaching. And players incrementally get better year after year. I mean, look at these two great franchises. It’s wonderful from a league standpoint to see the Warriors and the Raptors, two incredibly well-run franchises from top to bottom, here representing the league.”

The Warriors and Raptors are certainly well run, but lottery luck is still going to shape franchises as long as there is an NBA Draft. It’s the nature of a sport where you need at least one and probably two of the top 15-20 players in the world to win a title, for a lot of cities getting that player will only happen via the Draft.

What the change in lottery rules does is just move the inflection point. There may be reduced value in having the very worst record, but for a team that looks like it is on the playoff bubble at Christmas, the calculus changes: Tank the rest of the way, get maybe a six percent chance a the No. 1 pick and look what can happen. Some teams will still chase the playoff berth (and the gate revenue that comes with it), but not all. Teams will make different choices in the middle of the pack now because their lottery odds are better with this system.

It will be a few years before we fully see and understand the impact of the new lottery odds, but tanking on some level will be part of the NBA so long as there is a draft. And some fans will want their team to do it.