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.

Adam Silver likes NBA teams moving away from term ‘owner,’ prefers ‘governor’

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Warriors star Draymond Green has objected to using the term “owner.” The 76ers use “managing partner,” not “owner,” as Josh Harris’ title.

Does NBA commissioner Adam Silver like teams moving away from the term owner?

Silver, via TMZ:

I do. I don’t want to overreact to the term because, as I’ve said earlier, people end up twisting themselves into knots avoiding the use of the word owner. But, we moved away from that term years ago in the league. We call our team owners governor of the team and alternate governors. So, I think it makes sense. As I’ve said, I don’t want to overreact, and you’ll find the word throughout memos over the past decade in the NBA. But I’m sensitive to it, and I think to the extent teams are moving away from the term, we’ll stick with using governor.

Players have gone both ways. I think a few players have actually spoken out and said the greatest thing that ever happened was when Michael Jordan was able to call himself an owner. But, of course, Draymond Green has been very public about the fact that we should be moving away from the term, and I completely respect that.

The elephant in the room: Slavery. The history of white people owning black people is the subtext to this entire discussion. Slavery looms over a league where most owners are white and most player are black.

However, the term “owner” here doesn’t refer to owning the players, but owning the team. “Ownership” has far wider historically usage than slavery. In most fields, “owning” companies – which NBA teams are – doesn’t generate backlash.

Are we too loose with the term “owner” in sports? Perhaps. It’s common to say something like, “Players should strongly consider their potential owners in free agency” rather than “players should strongly consider their potential team’s owners in free agency.”

But there are power differences between players and owners/managing partners/governors/whatever you want to call them. Unless addressing the actual underlying issues, changing terms will accomplish nothing.

Those power dynamics are why the Warriors referred to Mark Stevens as “Mr. Stevens” and Kyle Lowry as Kyle Lowry after Stevens pushed Lowry during the NBA Finals. Those power dynamics are why Donald Sterling took guests into the Clippers’ locker room to ogle players. Those power dynamics are why LeBron James is remembered as the bad guy from The Decision despite Dan Gilbert’s wild letter.

There will always be differences between players and owners. Owners have more money and staying power. But the NBA can create a better, fairer environment for its players.

It’ll just require deeper consideration than a simple word change.

Report: Knicks will roll over cap space if they don’t sign Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard

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The Knicks are chasing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. New York will reportedly get a meeting with Kawhi Leonard.

But Irving appears headed to the Nets, and Durant might follow. Leonard appears to favor the Raptors in a two-team race with the Clippers.

Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

New York still believes it’s in the hunt for Kawhi Leonard, Irving and Durant. But, according to a source, the Knicks will punt their $70 million-plus in cap space if they can’t land one of those Tier A free agents.

This plan would require patience Knicks owner James Dolan has rarely shown. The Knicks have missed the playoffs six straight years. Twice during that span – including last season – they posted their worst record in franchise history (17-65). Dolan publicly proclaimed confidence New York would sign major free agents this summer.

He’d really allow the Knicks to delay winning even further?

New York is positioned to wait until 2020 free agency (though Joakim Noah‘s cap hit will remain on the books after an avoidable error). R.J. Barrett and Kevin Knox will still be on relatively cheap rookie-scale contracts. As a second-round pick, Mitchell Robinson is even lower-paid. If they sign players to only one-year contracts this offseason, the Knicks will once again have massive cap room.

But good players generally want multi-year deals. So, New York would be choosing among a far more limited pool of free agents. Another gloomy season would likely await.

And then the 2020 free-agent class looks weak. Especially with Anthony Davis already on the Lakers, there probably won’t be an attainable superstar for the Knicks. There might not even be an attainable star.

Then what? Sacrifice the 2020-21 season to gear up for 2021 free agency? Maybe Barrett, Knox and Robinson develop and send New York on a different track, but that’s far from assured.

The genius of this plan is it allows Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to keep their jobs while the team continues to stink. There would be no expectations of winning anytime soon – as long as Dolan abides.

Report: Kyrie Irving doesn’t like living in Boston

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Has Kyrie Irving been in contact with the Boston Celtics about his free agency? We have reports that say that Irving has “ghosted” the Celtics… and of course we have counter reports that say just the opposite.

It’s hard to believe anything that swirls around Irving, one of the more enigmatic and tiring personalities in the NBA. At the very least, Irving has appeared to send signals that he is looking to sign with the Brooklyn Nets. Chief among them being that Irving recently fired his longtime representation and signed with Roc Nation, which has a close partnership with the Brooklyn front office.

Boston has had a hard time getting free agents to come to play for the franchise, and that’s before they had a standing beef with Klutch Sports. According to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, one of our Irving’s problems with the Celtics was that he simply didn’t like living in Boston.

Via ESPN:

“Kyrie Irving didn’t like Boston. I’ve been told this by many people. He didn’t like living in Boston — he just didn’t. By the end he had issues with Brad, by the end he had issues with Danny… by the end he had issues with pretty much all of us.”

We have heard rumors that things started to go wrong in the Celtics locker room when coach Brad Stevens seemed to openly favor injured star Gordon Hayward a bit too heavily (Hayward played for Stevens at Butler in college).

Meanwhile, Danny Ainge has the propensity to rub folks the wrong way. He makes whatever decision he thinks is the best from a basketball perspective, relationships be damned. We learned that with the Isaiah Thomas trade.

At this juncture it seems unlikely that Irving will return to the Celtics. Meanwhile, we will probably continue to get stories like this out of Boston.

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.