Two critical things the Lakers need to go right to contend for a title

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the best superstar duo in the NBA. Flat out.

One could argue there are better teams built around superstar duos (for example, the one down the hall at Staples Center), but there is not a better two-man combo in the league this season. LeBron will have the ball in his hands, will be more of a facilitator making smart decisions, and Davis can do literally anything after setting a pick for LeBron — pop out, roll to the rim, get the ball and find the open shooter in the corner, whatever the defense gives him. Plus defensively Davis is the kind of versatile rim defender who can switch out and slow guards on the perimeter that can be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.

The Lakers are title contenders because of those two.

However, the Lakers are far from a lock. There are also two main issues that could derail Los Angeles’ chances at adding a 17th title banner to their collection.

LEBRON VS. FATHER TIME

LeBron James is a physical freak of nature, one of the most gifted athletes ever to play the game — and it puts in the work to maximize it. His conditioning is impeccable. LeBron spares no expense and puts in the time: He works out right, recovers right, eats right, gets sleep, and listens to what his body is telling him.

He’ll also turn 35 in the middle of this season and is already fifth all-time on the total minutes played in the NBA list (counting regular season and playoffs), and by the time this next season ends he likely moves into third (passing Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant). That’s a lot of miles on his Nikes.

Last season was the first time LeBron went through any kind of serious injury, missing 17 games after suffering a groin injury on Christmas Day. That period is when the Lakers’ season collapsed.

That injury also is an outlier in LeBron’s career — but will it be going forward?

LeBron had more time away from NBA basketball this summer than he has since the summer of 2005 (his second in the league), and the optimistic argument is that extra time off to rest and heal his body will lead to a healthy bounce-back season (with some load management thrown in). There’s some logic to that. But we also know Father Time eventually wins every race, the question for the Lakers is can LeBron hold him off for another season (or two)?

The Lakers simply cannot afford to lose LeBron for any length of time, or have his skills and efficiency erode much. He’s L.A.’s best shot creator and it’s not even close, they also need his gravity to draw defenders and open space for the role players, plus the Lakers have no way to replace the 27.4 points, 8.5 points, and 8.3 assists a game he brought last season. LeBron also shot 33.9 percent from three and 66.5 percent from the free-throw line last season, the Lakers cannot afford a dip in those numbers.

Los Angeles needs LeBron to keep winning that race.

CAN THE “ISLAND OF MISFIT TOYS” ROLE PLAYERS COME TOGETHER?

Having LeBron and Davis makes the Lakers an instant threat in any game or playoff series. But if the Lakers are thinking titles, that is simply not enough.

“Obviously superstars are going to do what they do. But most teams win playoff games when role players step up,” new Laker Danny Green said at Lakers’ media day. “That usually determines how far you will go and how much you’re going to win, when role players step up and play good basketball. Those are the usually the teams that win and is the last one standing.”

Green has been one of those role players standing at the end and has two rings to show for it, one with the Spurs and last season with the Raptors.

The Lakers were lucky to get him.

After Kawhi Leonard finally made his decision last July (and the Lakers were right to stay in that race as long as they could), Laker GM Rob Pelinka did about as good a job as could be expected assembling a good roster out of the players left on the board. But it’s not an optimal group by any stretch.

Questions about the quality of players and their fit meld into one overarching issue: Can the Lakers’ role players step up and provide that championship quality depth? One could make an optimistic case they can — and plenty of Lakers’ fans have talked themselves into it — but there are plenty of questions hanging out there:

• Is Kyle Kuzma — once he gets healthy and back in the lineup — ready to take a step forward and be the No. 3 player on a championship team? Did spending time with Gregg Popovich and Team USA this summer mature his game and decision making?

• Is Dwight Howard ready to just accept a role, set picks, rebound, defend the rim, and just play hard every night, not be a diva? Can he and JaVale McGee form a solid center rotation for 35-40 minutes a night? (Davis is the Lakers’ best center but will only play the five in limited minutes.)

• Can Green, Avery Bradley, Quin Cook, Jared Dudley, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope provide enough shooting around the stars to balance the floor? It’s easy to say things like “Green shot 45.5 percent from three last season” but just remember that was 32.8 percent in the playoffs — when things get tight in a deep West, then in the playoffs, can these guys be counted on?

• Can some combination of Rajon Rondo and fan-favorite Alex Caruso form a point guard combo that is not a liability other teams exploit?

• Can enough chemistry develop among the role players — and between LeBron and Davis with those role guys — to get the Lakers where they want to go?

That’s a lot of things that need to come together and go right.

However, if the Lakers have a healthy LeBron and Davis, they have a chance. Which is a lot more than Laker fans have been able to say the past six years.

Durant, Irving talk about Nets moving on from ‘very awkward’ summer, but drama continues

Brooklyn Nets Media Day
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Media Day — arguably the most boring and tedious day on the NBA calendar — was anything but in Brooklyn.

After a summer Kyrie Irving admitted was “very awkward” — where both he and Kevin Durant pushed to be traded, and Durant threw down an ultimatum saying it was him or coach Steve Nash and GM Sean Marks — everyone was back under one roof and trying to stay on message about just wanting to win.

But drama will follow this team like a dark cloud until they force the conversation to be about something else. Like how many games they are winning.

Until then, the awkward questions and moments will come. For example, why did Kevin Durant ask for a trade this summer? What did he want to see changed? He talked about the team feeling unstable last season. Which it was (for a variety of reasons).

“My whole thing was, I wanted everybody to be held accountable for their habits as a basketball player. I think a lot of stuff was getting swept under the rug because we’re injured or this guy’s not around or just the circumstances. I thought we could have fought through that a little bit more and focused on the guys that were here a little bit more.

“You know, when I went out with the injury, we lost 10 in a row. And I’m like, we shouldn’t be losing some of these games that we lost, regardless of who’s on the floor. So I was more so worried about how we’re approaching every day as a basketball team. And I felt like we could have fought through a lot of the stuff that I felt that held us back.”

Those are the best, drama-free answers he could give. But Durant still loves to stir the pot on Twitter and did so later in the day.

(That was the question asked boiled way down, but both the question and Durant’s answer had a lot more context, it was not a confrontational answer in the moment.)

Kyrie Irving said there were options for him this summer, although limited ones, because he is unvaccinated. He also talked about the reasons he wanted to return to the Nets.

Marks handled the inevitable “your star wanted you fired” questions as well as he could, saying at one point “that’s pro sports.”

“Everybody’s entitled to their opinions and I think from us, it’s not to hold a grudge against what Kevin said, but it’s a little bit of saying, ‘All right, if that’s the way he feels, what’s going on here?’ Like, what do we need to change?” Marks said.

In the end, everyone talked about moving on and the potential for this roster. Durant is not disappointed to be back.

“I wasn’t disappointed. I still love to play. I knew that wasn’t going to get affected regardless of what happened this summer,” Durant said.

The Nets have the talent on the roster to be title contenders, but have more questions than any other team at that level after the past couple of years: Can Durant stay healthy? Will Irving be focused and committed for an entire season? How does Ben Simmons fit in and what is his role? Can their thin frontcourt hold up? Will they play enough defense? Is Steve Nash up to the task? Does this team have the will and drive to be contenders?

Playing through the drama is the only way to answer all those questions, but if they do this team could be a powerhouse.

PBT Podcast: Golden State Warriors season preview

2022 NBA Finals - Golden State Warriors v Boston Celtics
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The Golden State Warriors will enter the season hanging banner number four from this era and passing out their championship rings, but this is a team with more questions than most returning champs.

Otto Porter and Gary Payton II are gone and their minutes will go to a young core — Jordan Poole, Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga, James Wiseman — who are going to be asked to carry a larger load. Particularly during the regular season.

Dalton Johnson of NBC Sports Bay Area joins Kurt Helin of NBC Sports to break down this coming Warriors season, what to expect, and if the young core can get the older vets to the playoffs rested and ready to defend their title. There’s also talk of what comes next in Golden State, as some hard contract choices are coming in the next few years.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Khris Middleton says he will miss start of season following wrist surgery

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When Khris Middleton first went under the knife this summer to clean up issues with his left wrist, he expected to return in time for the start of the season.

At Bucks media day Sunday, Middleton said he’s not going to make that opening night goal but should be back early in the season, as reported by Jamal Collier of ESPN.

The Bucks open the season on the road Oct. 18 against the Celtics (who have their own set of issues heading into this year).

Middleton’s importance to the Bucks was evident in the playoffs, when not having him as a secondary shot creator was a key aspect of their seven-game loss to the Celtics.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds a game last season. A healthy Bucks team — with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Jrue Holiday as the core — enter the season as serious title contenders. But they need Middleton, so they will not rush him back.

Zion, Nash, Davis: Seven players, coaches who enter NBA season under pressure

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Every NBA season comes with pressure — the pressure to win, the pressure of fan emotions and expectations, and for players the pressure that this is their livelihood. There is real pressure to stick in the NBA and earn that handsome paycheck.

But some players and coaches enter this season under more pressure than others.

Here are seven players and coaches who are under added pressure this season.

Anthony Davis

“This is not going to work without AD. No disrespect to Bron, no disrespect to Russ. They’re going to be who they are… but AD, having AD available…. it’s going to be invaluable. He’s the centerpiece to that championship table we’re trying to build.”

That was new Lakers coach Darvin Ham talking about Anthony Davis — the lynchpin to everything Ham hopes to do in Los Angeles. As he said, LeBron James will be LeBron (read: elite, even at age 37), and Russell Westbrook will be Russell Westbrook (he’s saying all the right things, but…), but if the Lakers are going to be any threat in the West it starts with Davis. Ham needs the Davis from the bubble — healthy, elite defender, playmaker, solid midrange jump shot — because he plans to run the offense through AD.

More than just this season, the Lakers have to come to a decision: Is Davis the No.1 option they can turn the franchise over to after LeBron steps away? Can he physically carry that burden and not break down? Davis can be one of the game’s elites, but is he ready to carry the Lakers franchise? Their future direction depends on that answer.

Zion Williamson

The acquisition of CJ McCollum last season helped bring the Pelicans together. They made a push into the playoffs with a solid core of McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance, Devonte' Graham and others. Watching New Orleans you couldn’t help but think, “If Zion Williamson were healthy…”

Now we get to find out. Williamson is reportedly in the best shape of his life (take all offseason conditioning comments with a shaker of salt) and ready to resume his role as a No.1 offensive option and maybe the best interior scorer in the game. The pressure of getting paid is off Williamson — he got his max extension — but the pressure of living up to it is just starting.

Steve Nash

When your star player says “him or me” during the offseason — even if that ultimatum gets rescinded — you enter the season under a microscope. Nash would have been getting a close look even if Kevin Durant didn’t drag his name into his offseason drama — there are plenty of front office people around the league not convinced Nash is up to the task in Brooklyn. There is enormous pressure on this team to get things right — to avoid a meltdown — and if things go at all sideways in Brooklyn Nash will be the fall guy. His seat is already warm.

Kyrie Irving

While we’re in Brooklyn… Ben Simmons is the logical first name to pop into your head when thinking of players under pressure with the Nets — and with good reason. We haven’t seen him on an NBA court in over a year and his play and fit are critical to the Nets’ hopes of contending. But there is another player who faces real contract pressure in Brooklyn.

Kyrie Irving wanted a trade out of Brooklyn this summer, the Nets said “go ahead and find one,” and Irving found his market was not nearly as deep and strong as he expected (the Lakers were interested, and he reportedly was interested in them, but any trade would have involved Russell Westbrook and got too tricky). Irving is in a contract year now and there is pressure on him to remind everyone that, when focused and committed, he is an All-NBA point guard and game changer. But will he stay focused and committed this season?

Tom Thibodeau

Knicks president Leon Rose came out this week in a softball-filled interview on MSG Network and backed his coach. When asked if Thibodeau was under pressure, Rose said, “I don’t see it that way at all. The way I say it is we’re continuing with the plan.” Nothing went according to plan with the Knicks last season. While not all of that was Thibodeau’s fault — he didn’t cause Julius Randle‘s shooting regression — if things get off to another slow start after spending money on Jalen Brunson this summer, somebody is going to have to pay the price. Thibodeau’s job may not be as secure as Rose tries to paint.

James Harden

James Harden is positioned to have a monster regular season. He’s asked to be more of a playmaker, get the ball to MVP candidate Joel Embiid, put Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris in positions to thrive, and score a few points in there as well. Harden could be poised for an All-NBA level regular season — and then the playoffs start. That’s where the pressure is. Harden’s long history of playoff foibles (including some flat outings against the Heat last year) will be under a microscope this season because Daryl Morey has built a team of solid role players — this team is good enough. It’s up to Harden (and Embiid) to prove he can also be an elite player in the postseason.

Kawhi Leonard

Steve Ballmer has paid an enormous… well, it’s chump change to him, but it’s still an enormous amount of money to turn the Clippers from league laughing stock into a respected franchise (sorry, it’s true Lakers fans). These Clippers are contenders. But that title contention rests on the shoulders of Kawhi Leonard. He has to both be healthy and play like the guy who helped lift the Raptors to a title. If Leonard and Paul George are healthy and playing like their All-NBA selves come the postseason the Clippers are a massive threat — two-way wings win playoff series and the Clippers would have two of them. It’s just on Leonard (and Paul) to be that guy.