Three Things to Know: Lakers find way to upstage even NBA’s biggest nights

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There is a lot to unpack heading into the final day of the NBA regular season, but here’s what you need to know, including playoff scenarios.

1) Lakers find a way to upstage even NBA’s biggest nights: Magic Johnson unexpectedly steps down as Lakers’ president. Nobody saw this coming. Not Laker owner Jeanie Buss — Magic didn’t even face her and tell her before stepping in front of the cameras at Staples Center. Not LeBron James, who had met with Magic Johnson and Laker GM Rob Pelinka days before and got not even a hint. Not Luke Walton, the Lakers’ coach who expected to be out of a job within 24 hours.

Magic Johnson stepped in front of the cameras at Staples Center Tuesday night and resigned as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations in what was a 40-minute, impromptu, rambling, emotional press conference.

It leaves the Lakers with oh-so-many questions. What is the fate of Luke Walton? GM Rob Pelinka? Who do the Lakers get to take over next? Will this impact free agents’ decisions this summer?

This can be a good thing for the Lakers because Magic Johnson wasn’t good at this job.

Sources told me last summer he was the kind of boss who had a lot of different things going on — time with family, a $700 million business empire, HIV activism, much more — so he would parachute in a few days a month, throw around edicts, then leave and let everyone else deal with the fallout. Pelinka (who is more likely than Walton to soon be out of a job now, Pelinka is not loved by other league executives) stumbled learning the GM job on the fly. Magic and Pelinka together came up with the plan to surround LeBron James with playmakers, not shooters, and the guys they could get on one-year contracts. That failed spectacularly.

Now the pressure falls on Jeanie Buss. The Lakers’ lead owner has to reach beyond her comfort zone and bring in someone who can turn the assets the Lakers still have — LeBron, max cap space, some nice young players, being in Los Angeles — into a winning team and culture again.

When Buss forced out her brother Jim and Laker loyalist Mitch Kupchak, she turned to a trusted friend in Magic, even if he didn’t have experience in the job. The Lakers have acted for a while now like their powerful brand is an organizational culture, that if they just do things “the Lakers way” everything will work out. But a brand is not a culture. Buss needs to go out and get a new basketball president from outside the organization with a track record of success, pay him well, give him complete power over the basketball side of the building, then get out of the way.

Oh, and she needs to do it fast because this upcoming draft and free agency will be huge for the Lakers and their chance to win a ring in LeBron’s window.

2) Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki each receive touching tributes in their final home games — then each of them drops 30. Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki both are more than just future Hall of Famers who had great careers. Both became the face of a franchise and led their respective teams to titles.

Both are retiring next season and both received an emotional sendoff from their hometown fans Tuesday night.

Then both went out and dropped 30 points.

Wade’s family was with him on the court in Miami, watching touching — if a bit too sponsor driven — tributes. However, the Heat were still playing for something, the game mattered, and Wade was not going to leave on a loss — he had 30 points to help the Heat past the 76ers. (Miami was still eliminated from the playoffs because both Detroit and Charlotte won.)

Nowitzki went into the night never having officially said he was retiring, even though everyone knew it was coming and his final season had basically been a farewell tour. Tuesday, in front of the Dallas fans, he said this was it, he was walking away.

Then Nowitzki dropped 30 points and had 8 rebounds to lead a Mavericks win against Phoenix (despite 51 from the ageless Jamal Crawford for the Suns).

Dallas is well positioned for the future with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, but it’s just not going to be the same without Nowitzki.

3) One playoff spot and seven playoff matchups still to be decided on the final night of the NBA season. This weekend, the Indiana Pacers will travel to Boston to open the first-round playoff series between those teams.

That’s all we know. Not one other matchup. We don’t know all the playoff teams in the East yet — Detroit and Charlotte are still fighting for the final slot — and the other three series in that conference hang on the outcome of games on Wednesday night.

In the West, we know the eight playoff teams but not one matchup is yet official.

Here is a quick bullet-point rundown of what to watch for Wednesday night.

• If Detroit beats New York, the Pistons are in the playoffs. The Pistons control their own destiny for the final playoff spot in the East.
• If the Pistons lose and the Hornets beat the Magic on Wednesday, then the Hornets are in. (Charlotte has to win or they can book flights to Cabo.)
• There are still eight different scenarios for the 6/7/8 seeds in the East depending on what happens in three games: Miami at Brooklyn, Orlando at Charlotte, Detroit at New York. Brooklyn and Orlando have clinched playoff spots but their seeding is up in the air still.
• The top five seeds in the East are locked in: Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, Indiana.
• Denver will finish with the No. 2 seed with a win at home against the Timberwolves. A Nuggets loss and a Rockets means Houston is the two seed, Denver the three seed.
• Denver tried to manipulate the playoff standings over the weekend, and it may work. Denver rested key players against Portland and lost to them in a not-so-subtle attempt to give Portland a boost to the three seed. If Portland can win at home Wednesday against Sacramento it ties Houston for the season, and the Trail Blazers have the tiebreaker, meaning Portland is the three seed (and the team Denver would see in the second round). Houston would then fall to the four seed and the Warriors side of the bracket.
• There are eight different scenarios of how the 6/7/8 seeds can still play out in the West.
• If Oklahoma City can beat Milwaukee Wednesday it will be the six seed in the West. Lose and they can fall to 7/8.
• San Antonio can be the six seed with a win Wednesday and an OKC loss. However, if the Spurs lose while the Thunder and Clippers both win, then San Antonio drops to 8. Nobody wants the eight seed and the Warriors in the first round.

Kobe Bryant said he traveled by helicopter to spend more time with kids

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Kobe Bryant was such a superstar, his method of transportation to and from practice – helicopter – became a sensation.

Bryant died in a helicopter crash Sunday. In an old interview, he described why he traveled by helicopter.

Kobe Bryant on The Corp:

Traffic started getting really, really bad. Right? And I was sitting in traffic, and I wound up missing a school play, because I was sitting in traffic. And these things just kept mounting. I had to figure out a way where I could still train and focus on the craft, but still not compromise family time. And so that’s when I looked into helicopters and being able to get down and back in 15 minutes. And that’s when it started. So, my routine was always the same. Weights early in the morning, kids to school, fly down, practice like crazy, do my extra work, media, everything I needed to do, fly back, get back in the carpool line, pick the kids up. And my wife was like, “Listen, I can pick them up.” I’m like, “No, no, no. I want to do that.” Because you have road trips and times where you’re not – you don’t see your kids, you know? So, every chance I get to see them and spend time with them, even if it’s 20 minutes in the car, I want that.

The irony and tragedy of Bryant and his daughter dying in a helicopter crash is just gut-wrenching.

Grizzlies call up Josh Jackson from minor league

Josh Jackson
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A few months ago, the Grizzlies thought so little of Josh Jackson, they didn’t even bring him to training camp. He remained on an NBA contract. Memphis gained no roster or salary-cap flexibility. The Grizzlies planned to send him to their minor-league affiliate, but the Hustle hadn’t yet opened their training camp. There was nowhere else for Jackson to be. The Grizzlies just didn’t want him around.

Now, Jackson will get his chance on the parent club.

Grizzlies:

The No. 4 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Jackson still has a lot to prove with his maturity, professionalism and production.

But this is an opportunity – for Memphis to showcase him before next week’s trade deadline and for Jackson to showcase himself before unrestricted free agency next summer.

Grayson Allen is injured. Jae Crowder is also banged up. Jackson could actually receive playing time.

Kobe Bryant’s death a unique tragedy

Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson
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Magic Johnson – one of the NBA’s brightest stars – stood behind a podium, smiled and shook the world. Johnson had HIV and was retiring from the Lakers, he announced. Confusion, speculation and, most prominently, grief followed. Everyone thought he’d die. Charles Barkley said, “It’s kind of like somewhat of a death of a brother.” Larry Bird called it “probably the toughest day I’ve had since my father passed away, and I’ve been very depressed and sort of been out of it.” Pat Riley called for a moment of silence before a game.

More than 28 years later, Johnson mourned Kobe Bryant.

Bryant’s death yesterday was the tragedy everyone believed Johnson’s diagnosis to be. Sudden. Crushing. Unbelievable. All the same emotions came pouring out. Except this time there was no mistaking the finality.

Johnson has continued living, thriving, inspiring. He’s a renowned businessman, beloved celebrity and fantastic ambassador for basketball. It’s the type of retirement expected for Bryant, because why wouldn’t it be?

The NBA has grown accustomed to its titans aging gracefully. Unlike baseball, the NBA hasn’t existed long enough for multiple generations of old-timers to pass away. Unlike football, the NBA doesn’t subject its players to such traumatic physical tolls.

Just two MVPs in all of NBA history had died, Wilt Chamberlain (age 63 in 1999) and Moses Malone (age 60 in 2015), and those deaths felt far too soon.

Bryant was only 41.

Just four All-Stars died younger. Don Sunderlage was in a car crash at age 31 in 1961. Maurice Stokes suffered a head injury during a game, became paralyzed then – after teammate Jack Twyman cared for him for 12 years – died at age 36 in 1970. Pete Maravich had a heart issue while playing pickup basketball at age 40 in 1988. Reggie Lewis suffered a heart attack during what should have been the midst of his career at age 27 in 1993.

Lewis – like Len Bias (who died of a cocaine overdose at age 22 in 1986) and Drazen Petrovic (who died in a car crash at age 28 in 1993) – never got to fulfill their potentials. That creates its own kind of anguish.

There is no analogue to Bryant’s death.

Bryant’s accomplishments – one MVP, five championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, 11 All-NBA first teams, two All-NBA second teams, two All-NBA third teams and 18 All-Star appearances – place him among the very greatest of all-time greats. No player anywhere near that stature had ever died anywhere near this young.

Bryant could be charming and ruthless, sometimes simultaneously. His play and conduct earned him loyal fans and harsh critics. The never-ending Kobe debates seemed only to inflame the passion of his supporters.

Few adored him like fellow NBA players. They admired his skill and determination. He responded by mentoring many. It’s difficult to overstate just how cherished Bryant was in this league.

Few understand the cold realities of the NBA like Austin Rivers. He grew up with his father, Doc Rivers, frequently gone playing and coaching. As a result, they aren’t particularly close. Now an NBA player himself, Austin speaks of their distant relationship with far more acceptance than wistfulness. He’s too focused on competing to do much else.

Yesterday, Austin cried on the court:

Then, explained how little he cared about the Rockets losing a basketball game:

Others shed tears in arenas around the country. The NBA could have cancelled yesterday’s games. Playing while grieving proved difficult for many.

There was just no good way to handle the loss. Mere moments of silence felt insufficient.

The Spurs and Raptors began their game yesterday with shot-clock violations in honor of his No. 24. Other teams exchanged a shot-clock violation and eight-second violation in honor of his other number. Trae Young wore No. 8.

Other tributes popped up around the world. Bryant was a global icon.

He was also a loving father. As incredibly wide as this tragedy lands, it also cuts unimaginably deep. Bryant’s daughter, 13-year-old Gianna, also died in the helicopter crash.

Appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2018, Bryant just lit up when discussing her:

Bryant’s death is devastating – for those touched closely and, because of its unparalleled nature, even those not. Nobody was ready for this.

It’s a punch in the gut. The basketball world – which expanded far larger than imaginable in 1991, when Johnson made his announcement, because of people like Bryant – remains in a daze.

In wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, Kendrick Perkins seeks forgiveness from Kevin Durant

Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kendrick Perkins
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Kevin Durant once called Kendrick Perkins his favorite teammate of all-time.

A couple weeks ago, they were beefing on Twitter,exchanging barbs that didn’t look as friendly as previously.

Kobe Bryant’s tragic death has Perkins reflecting.

Perkins:

Good for Perkins. Amid all the sorrow, Bryant’s death creates an opportunity for people to re-assess their priorities. Grudges almost always aren’t worth it.