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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.

Chris Paul: “I never asked for a trade” and says he’s happy to be in Houston

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With Golden State laid low by injuries (and maybe a defection), Houston should be the team stepping to the front of the line saying “it’s our turn” in the West.

Instead, the Rockets two stars — James Harden and Chris Paul — are feuding, ownership is turning coach Mike D’Antoni into a lame duck, and everyone without a fantastic beard hears their name in trade rumors.

The Harden/Paul feud is real, but Paul tried to downplay it at a charity event in Los Angeles over the weekend, denying a trade request and saying he was happy to be in Houston, as reported by Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

“I never asked for a trade,” Paul said. “I never demanded a trade.”

“I’ll be in Houston,” Paul said. “I’m happy about that. I’m very happy about that. I’m good.”

The report goes on to note Paul was asked if he had to work things out with Harden and he kind of danced around that question but said the issues were around a season-ending loss. Certainly, two straight years of being bounced by the Warriors has the Rockets frustrated. However, there is also a style issue: Harden dominates the ball and likes to work in isolation, Chris Paul can’t be as efficient that way anymore and prefers a more fluid offense (and more pick-and-roll for him). Coach D’Antoni gives a lot of leeway to Harden.

Harden and Paul need to work their issues out because Paul is nearly untradable (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener with a pick or young player). Paul still has value on the court — a master floor general he averaged 15.6 points and 8.2 assists per game last season — but he is 34-years-old, lost a step last season, has an injury history (he played 58 games last season), and is owed $124 million fully guaranteed over the next three seasons. There simply are not teams interested in trading for Paul.

Houston could head into next season the favorites in the West. Part of that depends on how things shake out in free agency (does Kawhi Leonard come West, for example), but a lot of it is just the Rockets getting their act together. I expect Paul and Harden to figure things out, at least well enough to make it work. Mostly because they don’t have a choice. Paul isn’t going anywhere, whether he asked to leave or not.

 

Zion Williamson on Pelicans: ‘I’m ready to stay here’ (VIDEO)

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Zion Williamson is finally, officially a New Orleans Pelican. David Griffin and the Pelicans front office selected Williamson No. 1 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft on Thursday.

Now, we just have to wait for the Anthony Davis trade to be official and we can put this whole thing behind us.

Meanwhile, Williamson has been celebrating. According to TMZ, he had a big pizza party with his friends after the draft in New York. Williamson has since reported to the team in Louisiana, where he’s already saying all the right things to the media.

Speaking during a team event, Williamson said that something just hit him and that it was a gut feeling that he was glad to be in New Orleans.

“This is my home,” said Williamson. “I’m ready to stay here.”

Via Twitter:

Williamson could also be seen getting recommendations for the excellent cuisine in the Bayou.

As No. 1 overall picks and future franchise cornerstones go, Williamson already seems to have the temperament of a guy who’s willing to take over from the last one in Davis.

Watch NBA draftees try to identify pop culture from the ’90s (VIDEO)

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Millennials are the last kids to have grown up without constantly having a phone in their hands. The internet was not always available much of that generation, and that’s shifted largely for Gen Z. It’s a curiosity not just to consider the real social skill impact of mobile communication being a constant for kids born after 1996, but for how they intake media and pop culture as well.

Enter the 2019 NBA draft class.

In recent video posted by ESPN, 2019 draftees had to name pop culture items from the 1990s. Present were things like the Easy-Bake Oven, Super Nintendo, music group Destiny’s Child, and movies like “Boyz n the Hood”.

This is where my understanding of how folks intake pop culture really falls apart. Particularly because what I assumed was widespread knowledge was apparently… not.

Many of the draftees couldn’t identify the Super Nintendo system, one of the most popular video game systems of all-time and one that was re-released in miniature “classic” form in 2017. Even further, several couldn’t identify Destiny’s Child, with Beyonce standing front and center. Beyonce!

Most surprising? Nearly all shown in the video could identify “Good Burger” a Nickelodeon skit from “All That” that was turned into a movie in 1997.

For reference, just four of the first 30 players selected in the 2019 draft were older than 22. That means none of them were really old enough to have lived through the skit-into-movie phase of the Keenan Thompson-Kel Mitchell vehicle (as yours truly did).

It stands to reason — for the uninformed — that if you could identify a Nickelodeon movie from 1997 you could identify Beyonce (who headlined Coachella just last year) or a fanny pack (a very “in” fashion accessory in 2019 as a cross-body bag for men).

Via Twitter:

People on Twitter were noticeably upset, particularly with the draftees’ inability to identify Outkast. That doesn’t really surprise me, as I’m not sure Outkast is as timeless as people from my generation think it is. But how can you not identify a Super Nintendo? Andre 3000 and Big Boi sold 25 million records together. They’ve sold 49 million Super Nintendos worldwide. Haven’t these dudes been clicking around on the internet since they were six years old? It feels like a Super Nintendo should have crossed their timelines at some point.

I’m not from the ‘60s or ‘70s but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t identify a Lite Brite or a Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots if need be.

Pop culture and how people intake them is so interesting. This video baffles me.

Report: Kawhi Leonard ‘seriously considering’ re-signing with the Raptors

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Kawhi Leonard won another NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors this season. We are now in the thick of the offseason, with free agency fast approaching. That means we are waiting to see what Leonard will do from here on out. Will he return to the Raptors? Or will he take another suitor—potentially the Los Angeles Clippers?

As expected, Leonard has reportedly opted out of the final year of his deal and become an unrestricted free agent.

The good news for Raptors fans is that Leonard is reportedly interested in staying in Canada long-term. Toronto can offer him a 5-year, $190 million contract.

Via Chris Haynes of Yahoo:

The appeal of returning home to Southern California is enticing to the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, but with the trust the Raptors built while Leonard led the franchise to its first NBA title by upsetting the Golden State Warriors, rival executives view his current team as the favorite to land him when the free-agent negotiating period begins June 30, sources said.

What NBA stars want and do is anyone’s guess in 2019. It’s hard to predict where these players will end up signing until the moment the ink has dried on the paper.

Many felt as though it would take a championship for Leonard to remain with Toronto past the season. That’s exactly what he delivered, and the team around him appears to be poised to dominate the Eastern Conference should he stay past this year.

Chaos in the NBA is always fun, but Raptors fans have stuck in with this team for a long time and it would be nice to see the “little” guys win one for once. We have already seen Anthony Davis force his way to Los Angeles, and not every major star needs to be centered in New York or L.A.

Kawhi should stay, and I hope he does.