Failure of LeBron’s Lakers this season piles on pressure to win offseason again

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LOS ANGELES — It was a surreal moment:

LeBron James — sitting in front of his locker with his feet in an ice bucket, more ice wrapped around his knees and lower back — was talking about something unthinkable in his previous 15 seasons: shutting it down early because he needs to think long-term.

“Well, I mean, that’s a conversation that would probably be had between me and Luke [Walton]…” LeBron said. “We didn’t take care of business, so you kind of look at the rest of the games, and the percentages of what’s going on there in the future, and see what makes more sense not only for me but the team itself as well.”

At one point Monday night in a crushing loss to the across-the-hall Clippers, LeBron grabbed his groin (the injury that sidelined him for 17 games) and asked out. That loss leaves the Lakers playoff chances are all but dead, which leads to reflection about what is best now for the 34-year-old LeBron.

Father time seems to be winning the race (as he always does). What we have not seen this season, particularly since his return from injury, is the LeBron who just takes over games. The guy who carried the Cavaliers to the Finals last season. LeBron has put up good numbers — he had 27 points on 18 shots against the Clippers Monday — but he has rarely been able to summon up his otherworldly dominant self that just wins games by force of will.

What the Lakers also lack is a team that can lift LeBron up when he stumbles — and that goes back to decisions made last July that prioritized maintaining cap space for the summer of 2019. From the start the Lakers called this a multi-year process and prioritized having the cap space to bring in another star next to LeBron over everything.

However, missing the playoffs in year one of the LeBron era was not part of the plan. It just piles on the pressure on the Lakers’ brain trust of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to repeat what they did last summer and win the offseason. Again.

If not, the LeBron experiment in Los Angeles likely ends without banners and parades.

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The Lakers won the last offseason on July 1, the moment LeBron announced he was coming to Los Angeles. LeBron didn’t drag out the process and listen to everyone’s pitches as he had in the past, he made his call early then hopped on a plane with his family to go on vacation.

What followed was a plan that had the NBA shaking its head — surround the Lakers’ new star with playmakers, not shooters as had been the case during LeBron’s eight straight trips to the finals. LeBron reportedly pushed for this, he wanted someone else (or someones else) to be able to create shots, he didn’t want to be the only focal point of the offense. Magic and Pelinka bought in.

Except that the Lakers also needed to preserve max cap space to potentially get LeBron a running mate in the summer of 2019, so they were only handing out one-year contracts. In their minds, that meant letting Julius Randle walk, now he is averaging 20.5 points and 8.7 rebounds a game for the Pelicans, setting himself up for a healthy pay raise next summer. It meant letting Brook Lopez walk, and he has been critical in turning the Bucks into the NBA’s best regular season team.

It meant one-year deals for the free agents who had no choice but to take one-year deals — Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Michael Beasley. When you look at who has struggled for the Lakers during this recent critical stretch of losses, it’s those guys, not the young stars like Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball. The hand-picked veteran playmakers have let the Lakers down. Well, except for Michael Beasley, because he’s out of the league and playing in China.

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It’s a fun parlor game among league front offices, and especially among Lakers fans: The blame game with the Lakers for missing the playoffs again.

Luke Walton will be the fall guy and deserves a slice of the blame pie. His lineups have been odd, he’s leaned on veterans even when they have not been good, and when adversity hit he could not get everyone to pull the rope in the same direction.

Injuries certainly have played a big role, although every team battles injuries and the best keep winning (Denver’s starting five has played fewer than 200 minutes together this season, the Thunder have never had Andre Roberson, etc). LeBron himself is taking more heat than he has seen in years. In Cleveland (and to a lesser degree Miami), he got credit when the team won but the losses just rolled off his back and the blame hit teammates or the front office. Not in Los Angeles. Healthy or not, LeBron has not been as dominant.

However, the largest piece of the blame pie for this season has to go to Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka — the president and general manager, the brain trust of Lakers basketball operations. Their roster construction doomed this team.

They prioritized maintaining cap space for next summer to land another star.

Then, at the trade deadline, came the very public process of chasing Anthony Davis. Not only did the Lakers never really get close in negotiations, but every young Laker on the roster also heard their names in trade talks. As it does with virtually every young NBA player, it shook them. The players were questioning if LeBron wanted to play with them. The hustle and spark of the Lakers has not been the same since.

It has all come together to form a tidal wave of uninspired play that has the Lakers about to miss the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year, a franchise record.

But the Lakers have that cap space.

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The failure to make the playoffs both ramps up the pressure to bring in another star and makes it a little more difficult. Is there really an elite free agent looking at the Lakers situation from the outside right now — the roster construction, the bright lights of media scrutiny for the franchise, the impatient fan base — and thinking it is the most desirable place to be?

That said, the Lakers are still a draw. The chance to capitalize on the marketing opportunities in Los Angeles, and the chance to win with LeBron, will still tempt free agents.

Just maybe not the guys at the top of the free agent board.

Kawhi Leonard has been predictably mum on free agency, but Toronto has a chance to retain him. Plus, I had heard from sources as far back as Summer League that he didn’t like the idea of the brighter spotlight and drama that comes with playing next to LeBron on the Lakers, which is why he was leaning Clippers if he leaves Canada.

Kevin Durant called the media and environment around LeBron “toxic,” which is a clear indication he’s not thinking Lakers if (or more likely when) he bolts the Bay Area. (It should be noted Durant didn’t mean that as a shot at LeBron as much as the social media and noise around LeBron right now.)

Nobody thinks Klay Thompson is leaving the Warriors unless they lowball him, and with Durant eyeing greener pastures, there is no way the Warriors don’t max Thompson out, according to reports. He stays put.

Who is left? Is Jimmy Butler a fit next to LeBron? Kyrie Irving and LeBron have patched up their differences, but that’s very different from joining forces again. Kemba Walker might be the best fit of this tier of players, but does he want to leave Charlotte and come West?

The Lakers also are not out of the Anthony Davis sweepstakes. What happens in the East playoffs, particularly with slumping Boston, could have a big say in that team’s offseason moves and how much they would throw into a trade for Davis. Also, which team wins the draft lottery and the right to draft Zion Williamson can be a player in the trade talks. Most importantly, will the new GM of the Pelicans, whoever that may be, value the young Laker players differently than the former GM Dell Demps, who was unimpressed? Can the Lakers flip a couple of those young players into a player/players the Pelicans do want?

There are a lot of moving parts. This summer is going to be wild and unpredictable, and it’s going to take deft management to sail through those turbulent waters.

Do Magic and Pelinka have that in them?

Lakers fans need to hope they do. If the Lakers don’t dominate the off-season again, the surreal and disappointing moments around the team will only multiply.

Jimmy Butler returns, hits clutch shots to lift Heat past Celtics

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
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BOSTON (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored 28 points, Tyler Herro had 26 and the Miami Heat completed a split of two games in Boston, beating the Celtics 120-116 on Friday night after Jaylen Brown banked in a long 3-pointer to force overtime.

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and had 25 points in 36 minutes after missing the previous seven games with a sore right knee. He added 15 rebounds.

“Obviously having JB back is big time for us,” Herro said. “He helps us in so many different ways.”

Kyle Lowry chipped in with 20 points before fouling out in OT for the Heat, who sent Boston to just its second loss in 16 games.

“My team welcomed me back and let me do what I do,” Butler said. “It was a big `W’ for the team.”

Brown sent the game to overtime by banking in his long 3 with 1.7 seconds to play in regulation. He finished with 37 points.

“It felt good coming off my hand,” Brown said. “I know we wanted to get a shot up off the rim as fast as possible, just in case we missed we could get a rebound, a tip out.”

The Celtics had won 10 straight at TD Garden.

Boston star Jayson Tatum scored just 14 points on a cold shooting night, going 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He had 49 points in the Celtics’ 134-121 victory on Wednesday night.

“That’s the biggest thing about the league; you’re not going to stop anybody from just scoring,” Adebayo said. “I feel like (we’re) making him take tough shots every time we play him and living with the result.”

Butler hit a clutch jumper over Al Horford, making it 110-107 with 5.1 seconds left in regulation before Brown took a pass near midcourt, dribbled to his right and nailed his shot.

In OT, the teams were tied twice before Butler nailed a foul-line jumper over Horford with 1:45 left, but Brown hit two free throws to tie it.

Adebayo nailed two free throws and, after Tatum misfired on a 3, Butler hit a jumper to seal it.

“Jimmy made two tough, tough baskets,” Brown said. “That’s just a credit to his work and his skill and his development. He gets going in games like this; on the road in a hostile environment. … Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we could live with, but Jimmy a big-time player made both of them.”

Unlike Wednesday, when shots were open more and both teams were making them effectively (each shot over 50%), defense was tighter and it resembled more of the postseason matchup last season between the pair that went seven games before Boston captured the Eastern Conference title.

Anthony Davis scores 44, outduels Antetokounmpo (40) leading Lakers past Bucks

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Anthony Davis and LeBron James tore apart the NBA’s top-rated defense and gave Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham a triumphant return to Milwaukee.

Davis scored a season-high 44 points and James passed Magic Johnson on the NBA’s career assists list Friday night in the Lakers’ thrilling 133-129 victory over the Bucks.

It marked Ham’s first game in Milwaukee since taking over as Lakers coach after working as an assistant on Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s staff from 2018-22.

Ham and Budenholzer shared a big hug before the game.

“It was a beautiful night,” said Ham, who also played for the Bucks from 1999-2002.

It also was quite a night for Davis, a Green Bay Packers fan who delivered his big performance with Aaron Rodgers in the stands. Davis spoke with the Packers’ four-time MVP quarterback before and after the game.

“I saw him before the game and he said, `I need 30 tonight,”‘ Davis said. “I just saw him and he said, `I only said 30, not 40.’ It’s always good for him to come out and watch the Lakers play.”

James made a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:22 left and finished with 28 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. He upped his career assist total to 10,144 and moved into sixth place, ahead of Johnson’s 10,133.

“It means a lot, obviously,” James said. “The way Magic approached the game, it was very infectious. His teammates loved playing with him because of the joy he played with and the ability to pass the ball and get other guys involved. He was always excited about seeing his teammates be great. I always admired that in him. What’s even more humbling and super duper cool is the fact that I’m doing it in a Laker uniform and knowing how much Magic means to the Laker franchise.”

The Lakers had the highest point total and field-goal percentage (.536) the Bucks had allowed all season. Milwaukee entered Friday with the NBA’s top defensive rating.

“It was too easy, too easy, too easy,” Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “They were living in the paint. That’s not who we are.”

Los Angeles withstood a 40-point performance from Antetokounmpo, who also had seven rebounds and five assists.

The Lakers also spoiled the 2022-23 debut of Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, who had 17 points and seven assists in his return from offseason wrist surgery.

Milwaukee missed two potential tying 3-pointers in the final 20 seconds.

After Davis missed a fadeaway jumper, the Bucks called a timeout with 21.4 seconds left and then found an open Grayson Allen, whose 3-point attempt went off the side of the rim.

The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook missed two free throws with 13.3 seconds remaining, but Jrue Holiday couldn’t connect on a 3-pointer with just over five seconds left. Davis made a clinching free throw with 4.5 seconds left.

“Grayson got a good look,” Budenholzer said. “Good execution. Good screening. We’ll live with that shot all the time. And Jrue, similar. We got the kick ahead, playing against a defense that’s not set. Jrue, kind of a good rhythm shot for him. It was contested, but Jrue was 6 of 12 tonight (from 3-point range). He was feeling it.”

Holiday had 28 points for the Bucks, and Bobby Portis added 15 points and 10 rebounds. Westbrook had 15 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds for the Lakers.

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.

Draymond Green wants to play 4-5 more years, ideally with Warriors, not stressed about contract

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Jordan Poole got a contract extension from the Warriors this summer. So did Andrew Wiggins.

Draymond Green did not — and he punched Poole and was away from the team for a time.

All this has led to speculation about the future of Green in Golden State. He has a $27.6 million player option for next season, but he could become a free agent this summer. With the Warriors’ payroll through the roof — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are on max extensions, Poole and Wiggins just got paid, and contract extensions for Jonathan Kuminga and the rest of the young players are coming — there are questions about how long Green will be in the Bay Area.

In an open and honest interview with Marc Spears of ESPN’s Andscape, Green talked about everything from his relationship with Poole after the punch to his future. Here are a few highlights:

“I want to play another four or five more years. That would be enough for me.”

“You can look around the NBA right now. There are five guys that’s been on a team for 11 years-plus. We have three of them [along with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson]. It’s a very rare thing. There’s 470, 480 players in the NBA? There are five guys that’s been with his team for 11 years plus. That’s amazing. So, you don’t just give that away. So, absolutely I’d be interested in that.”

On rumors he wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers: “I never said that. People can say what they want. I’m also not really one to react much to what one may say. I react to things when I want to react to it. I don’t react to things just because somebody said it.”

Is he worried about his next contract: “No, not at all. I have a great agent [Rich Paul]. The best agent in the business. That’s why you align yourself with an incredible agent, because they handle the business. I play basketball. That’s what I want.”

I don’t doubt there is mutual interest in Green staying with the Warriors, the question is at what price. It’s not a max. As for the threat of him bolting, Green is still an elite defender and secondary playmaker, but it’s fair to wonder what the free agent market would look like for him. Green is not the scoring threat he once was, and his unique skill set is not a plug-and-play fit with every roster and system (does he really fit on the Lakers, for example).

The conventional wisdom around the league right now is that Green will opt into the final year of his contract with the Warriors — especially if they make another deep playoff run — because that level of money is not out there for him. That said, it only takes one owner to fall in love with the idea and send his GM out to get the deal done. The market may be there for him after all, or he may be open to the security of three or four years with another team but at a lower per-year dollar amount.

Green also talks about his relationship with Poole in the Q&A and makes it sound professional and business-like. Which is all it has to be, but it’s not the “playing with joy” model the Warriors are built upon.