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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.

Kawhi Leonard dunks on Luka Doncic, scores 36 to spark Clippers win

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DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas Mavericks brought back one big man but lost another Tuesday night, and in the end, they couldn’t rein in the reigning Finals MVP.

Kawhi Leonard scored 36 points, Landry Shamet hit two clutch 3-pointers late and the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 110-107 Tuesday night for their fourth straight win.

Leonard also had the dunk of the night going right over Luka Doncic.

Dallas ended a four-game winning streak, and more importantly, lost a key piece in center Dwight Powell just as they welcomed back Kristaps Porzingis.

Powell went down to a non-contact, right Achilles tendon injury in the first quarter, and though he will have an MRI on Wednesday, the team is fearing a worst-case scenario.

“Guys like him define the culture we want here,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “It doesn’t get much tougher than this, if it ends up being what we fear it might.”

Luka Doncic had 36 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists for Dallas. He scored 24 points in the second half to help rally the Mavericks after they trailed by double digits from late in the second quarter through most of the third.

Shamet helped the Clippers seize the game late in the fourth quarter. His 3 from the left wing to give Los Angeles a 100-98 lead with 2:48 to play. Montrezl Harrell added two free throws, then Shamet sank another 3 from straight-on to put the Clippers up by seven. He finished with 18 points.

“We just kind of found a way to win,” Shamet said. “We’d loved to keep that lead the whole game, but that’s not how it’s going to be. It’s a long season. We got to find different ways how to win like we did tonight.”

Leonard added 11 in the fourth quarter, including his only 3 of the game with 1:15 left, which put the Clippers up 108-100.

But Dallas rallied, as Doncic hit a 3 and Maxi Kleber a dunk. After a Clippers turnover, Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s potential tying 3 spun around and out. JaMychal Green missed two free throws for LA, but then Doncic missed two – the second intentionally – and Leonard sealed it with two free throws.

 

Pelicans reportedly “really pulled back in trade talks” to focus on playoff push

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Three-and-a-half games.

Despite an injury-riddled 17-27 first half of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans are just three-and-a-half games out of the playoffs in a surprisingly soft bottom of the Western Conference.

Combine that with the team going 11-5 in their last 16 games, plus getting Zion Williamson in the lineup starting Wednesday, and the Pelicans have gone from sellers at the trade deadline to a team standing pat and planning to make a playoff push, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Around the G-League showcase just before Christmas (when league executives gathered in Las Vegas) there was a lot of buzz about the Pelicans trading point guard Jrue Holiday or big man Derrick Favors to help with their rebuild around Williamson. However, the recent hot streak and the emergence of Brandon Ingram as an All-Star level player has the Pelicans reconsidering their plans.

Memphis sits in the eighth seed in the West and has played well of late (8-2 in its last 10) behind the emergence of Ja Morant. However, New Orleans, San Antonio, Phoneix, and Sacramento have all shown flashes in recent weeks and could make a run at the final playoff spot in the conference (or higher if some team fades from the pack). Every one of those teams is trying to decide whether to make trades for young players/picks at the deadline or make a playoff push (Portland is the one team that could do both because they will get Jusuf Nurkick, Zach Collins, and CJ McCollum back from injury).

David Griffin, the man with the hammer inside the Pelicans organization, has until the Feb. 6 trade deadline to decide whether to go for the playoffs or make trades looking for guys on Zion’s timeline. How the team looks in the next couple of weeks with Williamson back will play a big factor in that call.

Dallas’ Dwight Powell leaves game with Achilles injury and it looks bad (VIDEO)

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This looks bad.

Hopefully it’s not what it looked like, but Dallas’ big man and critical role player Dwight Powell went down in the first half against the Clippers with a non-contact leg injury and will not return to the game with what the team is calling a right Achilles injury.

Here is a video of Powell going down as he plants to drive the lane; if you are at all squeamish this would be one to skip.

That looks a lot like a torn Achilles. Medical tests likely will confirm that tomorrow.

Powell is starting at center for the Mavericks, giving them 9.6 points and 5.7 rebounds a game, more importantly bringing toughness and doing the dirty work needed inside to allow Kristaps Porzingis to play his pick-and-pop game on the outside. Powell has become an important part of what is working in Dallas.

If this is a torn Achilles Powell is done for the season. This will ultimately mean more run for Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic, plus it could send Dallas out into the market looking for another big man before the trade deadline.

Friends, family, former teammates of Delonte West trying to him find his way

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The conversation among Delonte West’s friends, family, and former teammates will sound familiar to people who have sat in living rooms or around dinner tables around the nation trying to find ways to help a friend or family member battling mental illness.

They offer help in a variety of ways — money, housing, a path to medical assistance through doctors — but can be frustrated at every turn as those steps fail to help.

West has been out of the league for seven seasons, but his challenges with bipolar disorder — something he announced he had during his playing days — have not ended. Last weekend, a disturbing video of West being attacked and beaten on a Washington D.C. street surfaced. It was followed by a second video showing West handcuffed and talking to the police, where West used graphic and disturbing language to accuse another man of pulling a gun on him. Legally, nothing came of the incident.

However, it showed how much West continues to struggle. A lot of people from the NBA family have tried to help West, but have been frustrated by the results, something Shams Charania wrote about at The Athletic.

Professional basketball allowed West to have structure in his life, to have a level of stability. According to those close to him, that has gone by the wayside since he exited the NBA…

Former teammate Jameer Nelson is one of many people who have witnessed West’s post-career distress and offered help. The National Basketball Players Association has maintained close contact with West and made itself available as a resource. His college coach at Saint Joseph, Phil Martelli, and West’s former player agent, Noah Croom, have been in communication with each other — and West — about providing him support. The same can be said for the Celtics and Mavericks. Both Boston GM Danny Ainge and Dallas owner Mark Cuban have been in direct contact at various points, according to those close to West.  They all want him to find his place in life, and they want to be a helping hand when needed.

The NBPA helped facilitate his residence change from Dallas to Maryland in recent years and extensively supported him financially, as recently as this month, according to sources. Ainge and the Celtics have given him a scouting job to scout games in the D.C. and East Coast area, sources said, but West has had mixed results due to fluctuating attendance. His close friends and family have all stepped in whenever they could.

As has happened with so many families around the nation, all that support and love has not been enough, it has not had the desired impact.

Nelson, West’s former St. Joseph’s teammate, posted this on Twitter over the weekend:

Delonte West announced he had bipolar disorder back in 2008, during his eight-season NBA career — a career that was cut short in part by a series of actions and lack of reliability (from teams’ perspectives) likely tied to his condition.

There is no shortage of love and concern for West, and there are a lot of people who want to help. How to help, and if he will accept that help, are very different questions. Ones a lot of people can relate to.