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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.

Report: Pau Gasol near one-year deal to play for Barcelona

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Pau Gasol, who just turned 40 this week, has said he wants to play one more season to give himself a chance of making the Spanish Olympic team next summer. He mentioned the Lakers or Barcelona as a preferred destination.

It looks like Gasol is headed back to where it all started for him, in Barcelona.

Nikos Varlas at eurohoops.net confirmed a rumor that had been floating around for a few days, that Gasol and Barcelona were near a deal.

The long-awaited return of the 40-year-old Spanish legend in Pau Gasol to the European basketball is very close to happening as the player is near an agreement in principle for a one-year deal with Barcelona. The deal is expected to get finalized later in the summer…

The ideal unfolding of Pau Gasol’s story would be that the Spaniard completes a full circle in his career with one year at Barca and then retire after one final Olympic run with the national team in Tokyo.

We have to start with the caveat: In these uncertain times, nothing is guaranteed until Gasol puts pen to paper, and that has yet to happen. This could all fall apart.

Gasol has to prove to Barca he can stay healthy — he only played 30 games in 2018-19, then signed with Portland for this season but never saw the court due to a foot injury and was waived. Add to that his age and, understandably, Barcelona will want their medical people to get a good look at Gasol before agreeing to anything.

It would be a great story if it did come together, even if Gasol’s role is limited. One of the great players ever out of Europe, he would return to the club of his youth for one more season in the Spanish league, then end his career on the international stage at the Olympics. After that, the Hall of Fame is waiting.

 

Joel Embiid on NBA bubble: ‘I don’t think it’s going to be safe enough’

76ers center Joel Embiid
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76ers guard Shake Milton said, “I don’t really think we should be playing.” He’ll also presumably play for Philadelphia in the NBA’s resumption at Disney World.

That’s not as hypocritical as it sounds at first. Milton is concerned about basketball overshadowing the current movement for racial justice (a concern also voiced by Kyrie Irving and Dwight Howard). But players collectively decided to continue the season. NBA games will proceed, with or without Milton. At that point, his desire for collective action was eliminated. He had to make a personal choice and decided to play.

His 76ers teammate, Joel Embiid, has a much more confusing stance.

Embiid, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

I hated the idea,” Embiid said. “I feel like with everything that has been going on, it’s unfortunate what’s been going on in the world. Obviously people look at it in a different way. There might be some other reasons behind everything going on. To me, that part never mattered. To me, all I want is to stay healthy and stay safe, keep the people around me safe. I want to make sure I’m able to live for a long time and not have any sort of consequences in the future from this if I were to be in a situation where I was getting the virus.
Unfortunately, I’m not a big fan of the idea. But then again, I’m going to do my job. I’m not going to let the city down. I’m going to represent my city — that’s what I’ve always done — my family, my teammates. The mindset doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter the fact that I don’t like that idea and I still don’t believe in it. I don’t think it’s going to be safe enough.”

“Because I know I’m going to do the right things, I know I don’t ever do anything, I only play video games, I’m always home — I don’t do anything. But then again, I don’t trust those other guys to do the same. But, like I said, I’ve gotta do my job.

I don’t understand this. If Embiid doesn’t think the bubble is “going to be safe enough,” why go?

Of course, the bubble won’t be perfectly safe. Nothing is perfectly safe, and many normal activities are more dangerous amid the coronavirus pandemic. Damian Lillard expressed similar distrust of other players follow the protocols.

But each player must make his own judgment about “safe enough.”

There are reasons to play – money (individually and collectively), a chance to win, representing those important to you. Those must be weighed against the risks. Embiid did that and seemingly decided to play.

Is he having second thoughts? Did he just not choose words carefully enough while discussing his very-legitimate concerns?

I’d like to hear more about what Embiid means.

Spurs’ Patty Mills says he’ll donate remaining salary ($1,017,818.54) to fight racism

Spurs guard Patty Mills
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Patty Mills will play in the NBA restart, and the San Antonio guard said Wednesday that the reason why he’s decided to participate is so he can give just over $1 million of his salary to causes in his native Australia devoted to fighting racism.

The exact amount, Mills said, for the Spurs’ eight remaining regular-season, or seeding, games will be $1,017,818.54. He will split that money between three causes – Black Lives Matter Australia, another group that deals with the problem of Blacks dying when in custody, and to the newly formed We Got You campaign that he helped organize to address the issues of racism within Australian sport.

“So, I’m playing in Orlando because I don’t want to leave any money on the table that could be going directly to Black communities,” Mills said.

Mills isn’t the only player that has announced he will be donating his salary for the eight games to charity. Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard revealed earlier this week that he will give the remainder of his salary for the season to a charitable initiative he started called Breathe Again, which was designed to fight hatred and racism.

Mills is the longest currently tenured player on the Spurs.

“He’s a guy that I think everybody looks to for motivation and stuff like that,” Spurs teammate Trey Lyles said Wednesday, not long after Mills made his announcement. “I think along with his actions and his words backing up his actions … he’s definitely been somebody that I think not only the team but the league realizes is a community leader and somebody that’s always caring for other people.”

This is not the first time Mills has tried to shine a light on race-related issues this season.

Mills – an Australian whose mother is Aboriginal and whose father is from the Torres Strait Islands – and the Spurs hosted a celebration of Indigenous people back in January, which he hoped helped educate people on the importance of recognizing the value of other cultures.

“Australia is a great country. America is a great country,” Mills said. “We all have issues and different aspects. But the point of it is, is being able to come together to be able to work together.”

The Spurs leave for the Disney campus near Orlando, Florida on Thursday, when they will be among the final eight arrivals of the 22 teams that will be participating in the NBA restart. The season has been halted by the coronavirus pandemic since March 11.

Mills was to have earned about $12.5 million this season, had the season not been interrupted and some games been canceled because of the pandemic.

Report: Nets advancing toward signing Michael Beasley

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The Nets are cornering the market on past-their-prime scorers who haven’t played in the NBA this season.

After agreeing to sign Jamal Crawford, Brooklyn is moving onto forward Michael Beasley.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The NBA isn’t testing for marijuana at Disney World. Presumably, prior drug suspensions would still apply, though. Beasley must serve a five-game suspension (consistent with a third marijuana violation) if his NBA career resumes.

Brooklyn will play at least nine games in the resumption (eight seeding games and at least one play-in game). The Nets could play a second play-in game and/or make the playoffs. But Beasley will likely be ineligible for a decent chunk of Brooklyn’s schedule.

The Nets have several players who won’t play the rest of the season – Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler and Nicolas Claxton. This is turning into quite the patchwork roster.

Still, I wouldn’t expect much from Beasley.

He struggled on and off the court with the Lakers last season. Last summer, the Pistons looked at him and Joe Johnson and chose the over-the-hill Johnson. Beasley is now 31.

But Beasley grew up in Prince George’s County, Md., with Durant. The former No. 2 pick also has some talent that continues to intrigue. That’ll get him another opportunity.