Getty Images

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

18 Comments

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.

•••••••••••••••••••

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.

•••••••••••••••••••

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.

•••••••••••••••••••

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 leaving NBA-champion Raptors would be unlike anything we’ve ever seen

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Many Raptors fans hoped Kawhi Leonard would use yesterday’s championship parade to declare his plan to re-sign with Toronto.

They got a laugh and not much else.

But they can be heartened – or maybe eventually heartbroken –a by this: Stars almost never switched teams immediately following a title.

Before this year, there have been…

  • 49 Finals MVPs who won a championship. None switched teams that offseason.
  • 147 All-Stars who won a championship. None switched teams that offseason.
  • 124 All-NBA players who won a championship. Only one switched teams that offseason.

In 1998, Scottie Pippen got signed-and-traded from the Bulls to the Rockets. He was neither an All-Star nor Finals MVP that year, but he made the All-NBA third team. After leaving Chicago, he never achieved any of those accolades.

Leonard checked all three boxes this season – Finals MVP, All-NBA, All-Star. He looks poised to take over as the NBA’s best player for the next few several years.

It’d be unprecedented for someone like him to bolt.

The most productive player to leave a championship team immediately after winning a title? It might be Tyson Chandler, who posted 9.4 win shares for the 2011 Mavericks then got signed-and-traded to the Knicks.

Even while missing 22 games amid load management and minor injury, Leonard posted 9.5 win shares last season.

Here’s how Leonard compares to the players with the most win shares in a title-winning season who began play elsewhere the following year:

image

Of course, Leonard isn’t bound by history. He’ll make his own decision. If he wants to leave the Raptors for the Clippers, Knicks or anyone else, he can.

But players just usually stick with a champion. LeBron James said he might have re-signed with the Heat if they won the 2014 title. Kyrie Irving was unhappy after the Cavaliers’ 2016 championship but didn’t request a trade until they lost in the 2017 NBA Finals. Shaq and Kobe coexisted peacefully enough until the Lakers stopped winning titles.

It’s just hard to leave a team that has proven its ability to win a championship, and Leonard would have that in Toronto.

Report: Al Horford opting out with Celtics

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
1 Comment

Celtics president Danny Ainge called restructuring Al Horford‘s contract status – which would involve the center declining his $30,123,015 player option then re-signing for a lower starting salary but more total compensation in a multi-year deal – a priority.

This is either a step toward that or a step toward Boston, with Kyrie Irving seemingly exiting, losing multiple stars this summer.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

If they renounce all their free agents, the Celtics would project to have about $32 million in cap space. That’d be about enough for a max player with fewer than 10 years experience, and Boston would get the room exception (projected to be about $5 million)

Or the Celtics could use Bird Rights to re-sign Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris. That route would come with a mid-level exception, either the non-taxpayer (projected to be about $9 million) or taxpayer (projected to be about $6 million).

Horford could determine Boston’s path. If the 33-year-old wants to re-sign, that’d probably consume most of the Celtics’ cap space. If he sees Irving leaving and wants to chase a title elsewhere, Boston could reset around Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and three first-round picks in Thursday’s draft.

The Celtics could bring back Rozier, who’ll be a restricted free agent, in either scenario. But if Horford departs, that’d at least open the door to pursue an outside point guard – like D'Angelo Russell or Malcolm Brogdon – to replace Irving.

Report: Kyrie Irving has ‘ghosted’ Celtics as free agency approaches

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
2 Comments

The emerging expectation: Kyrie Irving will sign with the Nets in free agency.

Many thought the Celtics had a chance of changing his mind by trading for Anthony Davis. But Boston didn’t deal for the star center.

There’s little reason to believe Irving will re-sign with the Celtics now.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

The strangest part of the Irving situation right now is that it appears he has essentially ghosted on the Celtics. The people within the organization I have spoken with have made it clear that they have had little, if any, communication with Irving in recent weeks.

Irving is the prize. He’s not interviewing for jobs. Employers are chasing him. By becoming one of the best basketball players in the world, Irving has earned the power to act however he wants in this situation.

The season is over. If Irving wants space, he’s entitled to it.

Maybe it’s because he’s being a jerk. Maybe it’s because telling Boston he wants to leave isn’t an easy message to deliver.

Either way, Irving can proceed as he sees fit. The Celtics will still offer him a max contract if he wants to stay.

This is the same tact he reportedly took on his way out of Cleveland. So, it’s believable he’s behaving this way again.

But we’ve also repeatedly seen players smeared on their way out the door. Whether or not it’s accurate, this report will reflect poorly on Irving in many circles. So, in light of recent history, have at least a little skepticism for this depiction of Irving.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Ja Morant is the future of the point guard position

2 Comments

Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Ja Morant.

Previous draft profiles:

The trajectory that Zion Williamson and Ja Morant have taken to get to the point where they are projected to be the top two picks in the NBA draft could not be more different.

Four years ago, they were playing on the same, small AAU team out of South Carolina. From there, Zion blew up, becoming a viral sensation thanks to his athletic exploits, having his jersey get worn by Drake when he was still a high school junior and spending the majority of his time in the high school ranks as a top-five talent in his recruiting class.

Morant, on the other hand, was more or less a no-name prospect into the summer before his senior year. He eventually became a popular mid-major target, and he even received a scholarship offer from in-state South Carolina. He was hardly unknown, but he was miles away from being someone considered to be a potential franchise-changing talent at the NBA level.

As it stands today, the thing that both Zion and Ja have in common — besides the two most recognizable first names — is an otherworldly level of explosiveness that has both ratcheted up their hype and buried the lede. The reason Williamson is the most exciting prospect to come out of the college ranks since Anthony Davis is because of his ability to play the point and the five, all at the same time. He’s Draymond Green, only if he was injected with NOS from Dominic Toretto.

Morant’s athleticism rivals Williamson’s. Blessed with a 44 inch vertical, Morant’s motto this season was “jump with me if you want to go viral,” and that couldn’t have been more accurate. He spent more time on SportsCenter this season than every Ohio Valley Conference player before him combined, something that was highlighted by this dunk:

And that explosiveness matters, I would never try to say otherwise. Dunking over weakside defenders in the NBA is going to be more difficult than when playing at UT Martin, but being able to elevate the way Morant elevates will help him transition to the next level. His quick-twitch athleticism also manifests in his ability to make plays in the halfcourt, where his ability to change speeds — and to go from a standstill to top speed — is what allows scouts to be able to project Morant as a player that can create offense against set NBA defenses. For a player who did so much of his damage at the college level in transition, that’s a big deal.

Morant’s physical tools makes it very easy to see him as another De'Aaron Fox. They’re both about 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, and Fox just wrapped up his second season in the NBA with averages of 17.3 points, 7.3 assists and 3.8 boards.

But simply focusing on Morant’s athletic ability is to ignore what he does best: Pass.

Because while Morant did average 24.5 points and 5.7 boards while shooting 36 percent from three, perhaps what is most impressive about his sophomore season with the Racers is that he led all of college basketball in assists at 10.0 per game, just like Lonzo Ball led the nation in assists in 2017 and Trae Young did in 2018.

I mention both of those guys for a reason. Morant does not have the same hit-ahead ability in transition that Ball does, but Morant’s vision in the open floor and ability to make long, accurate passes in the open floor is one of the things that he does best. He also thrives in early-offense, where his And-1 Mixtape handle allows him to keep his dribble alive and probe opposing defenses. Because he is such a threat as a scorer, defenses would then collapse, which is when Morant’s ability as a dump-off passer and a lob-thrower comes into effect.

And that’s not even what he does best as a passer, because where he really shines is in the halfcourt and working off of ball-screens. Morant’s basketball IQ is the most underrated part of his game. He knows how defenses are going to defend him. He knows how to use his eyes to move weakside defenders. He knows where the tag is coming from, and whether the shooter in the far side corner or the roll-man will be open. This is where that Trae Young comparison comes into play, because reading defenses is where Young thrived while at Oklahoma.

The best way to describe Morant’s ability as a passer is that he not only knows when and where his teammates are going to come open, but he has the ability to find a way to make the pass that will get them an open shot. Morant is right-handed, but he will, at times, look like a left-handed player because of how often he makes bullet, live-dribble passes with just his left. He makes reads, and passes, that few point guards in the NBA today can make.

That passing is what makes all the difference, and as much as his athleticism or ability as a scorer, it’s the reason why he can be viewed as a player with the potential to be a franchise-changing point guard in the same stratosphere as the likes of Russell Westbrook and John Wall.

Now, Morant does have some flaws, and they are quite notable and relevant.

For starters, he is of a slight build, which is less than ideal. He is not going to be able to bounce off of contact in the NBA the same way he did in the OVC, and in a league where switchability is a priority at the highest-level, he is going to be targeted. Opposing coaches are going to target him by trying to force switches the same way that Nick Nurse did with Steph Curry in the finals. That is going to be an issue if he can’t add some weight and strength, particularly because he has not been a consistently great defender to date. Some of that can be attributed to the load that he was asked to carry offensively, and there is reason to believe that Morant’s athleticism, anticipation and quick hands will translate to being an above-average defender in the NBA.

Morant can also be a bit sloppy. He averaged more than five turnovers per game, and while some of that is strictly a result of workload and defensive attention, he also had a habit of trying to force passes that weren’t there.

But the biggest question mark, and what is going to determine his ceiling more than just about anything else, will be how well his jumper comes along. Morant shot 36.3 percent from three this past season, but that number drops to just 33.6 percent if his 7-for-8 shooting from three in the NCAA tournament is factored out.

Put another way, as good as Morant was this past season, there is still plenty of room for him to grow moving forward.

And in a league where ball-dominant lead guards that thrive in ball-screens is the norm, Morant is a player with quite a bit of value in the long-term.