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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.

NBA players reportedly to take part in televised NBA 2K tournament Friday

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If we can’t watch NBA players on the court, at least we can watch them control their digital selves and teammates in a live basketball tournament.

ESPN plans to broadcast an NBA 2K tournament with only NBA players at the controllers, a story broken by Chris Haynes at Yahoo Sports. The hope is to have it air Friday, with the players competing from their homes around the country.

The NBA is planning a players-only NBA 2K tournament that will feature the league’s sharpest video gamers and it will be broadcast on ESPN, league sources told Yahoo Sports…

Players competing against their peers in the comfort of their own homes could offer a distraction for fans who are missing the game and a little competition.

The league is still finalizing some details for the tournament, but each team is expected to have a representative, sources said.

Esports are incredibly popular and growing as a spectator sport, both in person and on Twitch and other platforms. With there being a pent-up demand for sports programming, this seems a smart attempt to draw eyeballs. Even people who are non-esports viewers could tune in just to check it out, because it’s that or rewatching Tiger King.

You can bet that if it works, we will see a lot more of it in the future.

(Inside baseball note: I would love to see the emails/texts flying around ESPN about Yahoo breaking a story about what is coming in their network.)

 

Shaquille O’Neal: I had no idea what was happening with Joe Exotic of Tiger King

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On a recent episode of “The Big Podcast with Shaq” former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal said that “he had no idea” what was happening at the zoo run by Joe Exotic. Joe Exotic was recently made famous through the popular Netflix documentary “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness”.

Footage of O’Neal appeared in the first episode of the show and was shown taking photographs with the animals.

The documentary also showed a cut of O’Neal on TNT saying “Shoutout to Exotic Joe. I got two more tigers.”

On his podcast, O’Neal explained:

“So we go in there, and it’s a beautiful place, and the character that was there was Exotic Joe. We’re there and I dropped some donations for the tigers’ foods and all that. We take pictures with (the) tigers. We went back a couple times. Then we go back another time and we found out that he’s involved with all the stuff, and then, actually, I stopped going.”

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, was sentenced to 22 years in prison after being found guilty of 19 different charges. Those charges included murder-for-hire plot, illegally selling endangered species and other animal-related offenses.

O’Neal clarified that he never bought any animals, but often donates to charities that help animals. He also made it clear that he’s not friends with Joe Exotic, nor anyone involved in the trade of endangered species.

“I don’t harm tigers,” O’Neal said. “I love tigers. I love white tigers. Do I put donations to these zoos to help these tigers out? I do it all the time. Do I own tigers personally at my house? No. But I love tigers. Listen, people are going to make their own opinions, but, again, I was just a visitor. I met this guy — not my friend. Don’t know him. Never had any business dealings with him, and I had no idea any of that stuff was going on.”

Report: Brooklyn Nets looking to hire a blue-chip head coach

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When the Brooklyn Nets and Kenny Atkinson parted ways in early-March, the team installed Jacque Vaughn as the interim head coach.

According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that’s a short-term appointment. On his podcast “Brian Windhorst and The Hoop Collective”, the reporter said the Nets are looking to hire a coach with a track record of NBA success.

“One of the things that has been expressed sort of the grapevine, that’s the way I’m going to say it to protect myself from the aggregators, is that Durant and Irving would like a blue-chip coach. I don’t know what this says about the way they thought about Atkinson, but they want a big-name coach.”

Names linked to the Brooklyn opening are Tom Thibodeau, Mark Jackson, and both Jeff and Stan Van Gundy.

Atkinson leaving Brooklyn was a surprise, considering he had led the Nets back to the playoffs in 2019. That success came after a three-year rebuild. That process was kicked off when general manager Sean Marks hired Atkinson to lead the on-court development. Under Marks and Atkinson, the Nets developed several players who had been given up on by other teams.

Brooklyn was 28-34 when Atkinson was let go. The Nets had gone 2-0 under Vaughn before the NBA suspended play in mid-March.

Rumor: NBA considering resuming 2020 season in a single site with shortened playoffs

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The NBA is determined to salvage what they can of the 2019-20 season. That includes drastically adjusting the playoff schedule per Marc Berman of the New York Post.

Among proposals being considered are best-of-three playoff series. The NBA has all but rejected a single-game elimination tournament. That would only be considered as a last resort per Berman.

One of the proposals on the table is gathering the entire league in one site to conclude the season. This proposal would involve playing games without fans present, but televising the contests. That would involve a 5-to-7 game regular season, followed by the playoffs.

Sites rumored to be under consideration are Las Vegas, Orlando, Hawaii, Atlantic City, Louisville and the Bahamas. Any site would have to have basketball facilities, as well as well as plenty of room to house the teams in a closed environment.

One league official was quoted by Berman as saying “Nothing is off the table.” Another told Berman “They’re very determined to have a champion.”