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Too early to panic about Lakers, but this is a flawed team

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LOS ANGELES — The Lakers are going to be a quality NBA team. Sooner rather than later.

Don’t take my word for it, take Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich’s.

“They’re just going to get better and better,” Popovich said after his team became the latest to execute better in the clutch and knock off the Lakers this season. “Luke (Walton) has done a great job with this group, still a very young group… and LeBron’s a great teacher, a great role model, and they’ll just get better and better and better. By that I mean mentally, as much as physically…

“The leadership of LeBron, he’ll demand a lot and he’ll help them all raise to another level for sure.”

Nobody around the Lakers doubts that.

Nobody expected a 0-3 start with the sixth-worst defense in the NBA, either. Los Angeles is allowing 131.7 points per game through three games (their top three pace is part of the reason for that eye-popping number, the Lakers play fast so the opposing team gets more chances against a porous defense).

The Lakers’ shooting was a concern going into the season and those worries have proven justified — Los Angeles is taking 31.4 percent of their shots from three (close to the league average) but are hitting just 29.3 percent of those shots, third worst in the NBA. While their shooting has had hot streaks — L.A. hit 6-of-7 at one point against the Spurs Monday, after starting 4-of-20 —the lack of consistency is not keeping opposing defenses honest. Opposing defenders are packing the paint and making it difficult to execute in the halfcourt, cutting off post passes, jumping in lanes and closing off angles used by the brilliant passers the Lakers have on their roster.

It’s been frustrating. For the team and the fans (who came in with wild expectations with LeBron James in purple and gold).

Yet, nobody around the Lakers is reaching for a panic button, or even looking to see where it is located yet.

“We’re going to continue to get better. I like the direction we’re going in,” LeBron James said after the latest loss. “Obviously, we don’t have too many wins right now but it’s such a long process….

“We want to defend, we know that’s going to be our staple. We know we’re going to have to defend. When we defend and rebound, we’re very good, just trying to figure out how to defend without fouling.”

“We still have to get used to each other defensively,” Josh Hart added. “We have to know individually when [we] have guys contained and work on not overhelping, not giving up open threes like that. We’re good. We have a young team and it’s a learning experience.”

“We’ve gotten better. It’s only been a month together,” said coach Luke Walton (whose name came up on the top of a gambling site’s list of odds for the first coach to be fired). “We’re rebounding the ball better, we might even have had more rebounds than they did tonight (the Lakers did have more rebounds and more offensive rebounds total than the Spurs). Our assist numbers are up where we want them and we haven’t even started hitting shots yet….

“The way we want to play, I think the pace has been great. All these things as far as who we are as a team are happening. And now we’ve got to close out games and get stops down the stretch and not foul down the stretch. I feel very good about where we’re headed.”

This Laker team is going to find its footing and win games (next up is the Suns, in Phoenix, on Friday).

However, this is also a flawed roster, and how far LeBron and the offense can lift this team is a question back in the spotlight after this start.

Continuity is one problem for Los Angeles.

In each of Lakers’ three losses — Portland opening night, Houston, San Antonio — have come to playoff teams from last season, and teams that have a strong identity. Continuity matters early in the NBA season and the Lakers don’t have any after a lot of roster turnover last summer. That lack of familiarity has come to a head in crunch time in each game — especially the first two. However, against the Spurs, it was the Lakers making plays when down 8 with 1:10 left in regulation, and a LeBron three sent it to overtime. An overtime the Lakers dominated, they were up 6 with :55 left… and then the continuity issues returned, the Spurs executed better, LeBron missed two free throws, and San Antonio went on a 7-0 run to get the win.

“I don’t like to use moral victories, but kind of bodes well,” Kyle Kuzma said. “The three teams we have played all played together for quite sometime. We are a new team and to be in every single game, it sort of means something.”

The Laker offense will be fine, mostly because of the commitment to run (23.7 percent of the Lakers’ possessions this season started in transition, the highest in the league, stat via Cleaning The Glass). The concern is the Lakers lack the shooting needed in the modern game — something Magic Johnson said the Lakers did consciously, they wanted to put more playmakers around LeBron, not just shooters as had been done in Miami and Cleveland — but LeBron is right that when the Lakers get stops and run they are a good team.

Whether they can get enough stops is another question.

When JaVale McGee is on the court this season, the Lakers are a good defensive team (allowing 103 points per 100 possessions, which would be fifth best as a team in the league). However, the team is a dismal 18.1 per 100 worse when he sits. JaVale’s rim protection and rebounding matter that much in the paint. Luke Walton has rolled McGee out there for 23.3 minutes per game, the most he has played since the 2011-12 season, and he was on the court more than 28 minutes vs. San Antonio. McGee only has so many minutes in him a night, and the Lakers may be bumping up against that.

For the Lakers, much of their issues are about communication and recognition on defense — things that come with time and familiarity. Or, continuity. The Lakers look like a team assembled this summer that is still figuring everything out.

Which is exactly what they are. What they should have been expected to be, rather than the pressure some put on them of a three-seed and 50+ win team. This was always going to take time. The only challenge is, in the deep West, time can run out much more quickly.

“It’s early in the season, it’s three losses,” Hart said. “Like you said, it’s always tight in the West. Sometimes getting into the playoffs can be one game, or half a game. It’s tough. But I feel like once we get that first win, the team will be rolling. We just have to get that first one.”

The optimism remains. And there’s not a panic button in sight in Los Angeles.

Reports: Houston trades Carmelo Anthony to Chicago, who will waive him

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Carmelo Anthony‘s sabbatical is over. Sort of.

Anthony, who has been on the Houston roster but not with the team after that experiment crashed and burned 10 games into the season, will be traded to the Chicago Bulls. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story (and other reports have since confirmed it). However, he’s not going to be putting on a Bulls’ jersey.

He may not be waived until after the Feb. 7 deadline, in case the Bulls find a way to use his salary in a one-for-one trade (his salary cannot be combined with others in a deal because he was just traded). If/when he is waived, at that point there will be more roster shuffling around the league and a landing spot for ‘Melo may open up.

Houston’s trade is much like the trade from Oklahoma City to Atlanta last summer that moved Anthony off the Thunder roster. The Hawks waived him and Anthony signed with the Rockets. For the Rockets, this is about saving money.

If another team signs Anthony, it would be a benefit for the Hawks.

It’s unclear where Anthony’s ultimate landing spot will be, although his agent has said there are options.

After his struggles in Houston — where the future Hall of Famer thought he deserved more than a bench role due to his stature, even though because of his declining offensive skills and defense that’s all he warranted — it’s hard to imagine another contender or even playoff team picking him up. Maybe a franchise going all in on the Zion Williamson chase but wants a bump at the gate from the name recognition Anthony brings? Although for teams trying to develop young talent why take the ball out of those young guys’ hands to let Anthony jack up contested twos? Most likely it will be a team battling injuries and looking for help.

In 10 games for the Rockets this season coming off the bench, Anthony averaged 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds a game, shot just 40.5 percent overall and 32.8 percent from three. The Rockets’ defense was 10.4 points per 100 possessions better when Anthony sat.

 

Report: Wizards look uninterested in trading Otto Porter for cap flexibility, future assets

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Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said, “We will never, ever tank.” Washington also put out word it wasn’t looking to trade Otto Porter.

As much as all that sounded like lip service, it appears the Wizards are also conveying similar messages to potential trade partners.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

the Wizards have shown little appetite for dealing Otto Porter anywhere for a return heavy on future assets and cap flexibility, sources say

John Wall‘s massive contract looked barely movable even before he underwent season-ending surgery. Washington seems unwilling to take a step back by trading star Bradley Beal.

So, that leaves unloading Porter – who’s earning $26,011,913 this year and due $55,739,815 over the next two seasons – as the obvious way to create cap flexibility and accumulate future assets. If the Wizards are unwilling to do that, it speaks volumes to their plan.

They don’t want to rebuild. They want to win now. Porter can help them do that.

In many ways, it’s noble Washington is so committed to winning, even at great expense. That’s generally what we want from teams. We don’t want them to give up or cut costs just because they’re a couple games out of playoff position midway through the season.

But the Wizards’ spending has been… uneven. Leonsis greenlit a payroll well into the luxury tax and is apparently willing to keep Porter, which likely keeps that payroll high. Yet, Washington is also holding as many roster spots vacant as allowed, offering small savings rather than adding depth amid multiple injuries.

Maybe the Wizards just don’t believe they could sign minimum-salary players who’d actually help. But insurance never hurts on the court.

So, Washington is left looking content holding its few major contracts, nickeling-and-diming down the roster, winning a barely moderate amount and not gaining better position for the future. I’m unconvinced that’s a worthy vision, but if that’s what the Wizards want, keeping Porter helps stay that course.

Celtics’ Marcus Smart fined $35k for charging at DeAndre’ Bembry (video)

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Marcus Smart‘s jawing with DeAndre Bembry reached the point several people tried to restrain the Celtics guard.

And Smart still fought through them to charge at Bembry.

That determination for a confrontation will cost Smart.

NBA release:

Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart has been fined $35,000 for aggressively pursuing an opponent in an attempt to escalate a physical altercation and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

The incident, which took place after Smart was assessed his second technical foul and was ejected, occurred with 7:35 remaining in the third quarter of the Celtics’ 113-105 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 19

Smart was seemingly near the line between this fine and a suspension. He’s fortunate to land on the side he did.

James Harden’s 19-game 30-point streak surpassed by only Wilt Chamberlain

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On Feb. 24, 1962, the Celtics held Wilt Chamberlain to just 26 points, ending his streak of 30-point games at 65. The next day, he scored 67 to start a 31-game streak of 30-point games.

Chamberlain was on a different level. He also had 25- and 20-game streaks of 30-point games. His numbers just warp so many statistical achievements.

Otherwise, James Harden would get even more credit for his scoring binge. The Rockets star has scored 30 points in 19 straight games, the longest such non-Chamberlain streak of all-time.

Here are the longest 30-point-game streaks in NBA history:

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Harden will attempt to continue his run against the 76ers tonight.

He has been clearing a much higher bar lately. In his last three games, Harden has scored 57, 58 and 48 points.

So, maybe “just” 30 points will be easy. But definitely not as easy as Chamberlain made it look.