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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.

What worries Adam Silver? Positive tests inside NBA bubble

Adam Silver bubble
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Since testing started on June 23, 28 NBA players tested positive for the coronavirus, 8% of the players tested. That and the positive tests of team staff members (10 of them, 1.1% of the people tested) led to seven teams (at least at one point) shutting down their training facilities.

None of that greatly worried NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and league staff.

The company line is this: Positive tests were expected — this many or more — which is why testing began two weeks before teams flew to Florida for the restart. This gave time for players and staff who tested positive to recover and still go to Orlando for the restart if they wished. The league expects a few more positive tests as players arrive in Orlando this week.

So what does worry Adam Silver and league staff? Positive tests once the first round of testing is done in Orlando and the bubble is formed. Silver spoke (virtually) at the Fortune Brainstorm Health Tuesday and was asked what would happen if there was an outbreak among players in the bubble.

“It’s the right question, and I’m not sure yet.” He went on to say: “Certainly, if we had any sort of a significant spread at all within our campus, we would be shut down again.”

“It would be concerning if once [the players] sit through our quarantine period, and then were to test positive, we would know that, in essence, there’s a hole in our bubble,” Silver added. “That our campus is not working in some way.”

That is the nightmare scenario for the NBA: They set up the bubble — essentially trying to keep the rest of Florida and its spiking cases out of the NBA’s campus — and still the virus gets in and spreads. If that happens, even with all the NBA’s protocols and protections, it’s hard to imagine the NBA season finishing.

However, the NBA is confident the bubble will work, that players will follow the rules enough, that it will all come together and work. Plenty of people, players included, have their doubts. But everyone seems willing to give it a shot, and the NBA wants to push through this.

So long as Silver’s nightmare scenario doesn’t unfold.

Rudy Gobert on dynamic with Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell: ‘I’m the a—hole’

Jazz stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell
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Rudy Gobert is the Jazz’s best player.

Donovan Mitchell is the Jazz’s biggest star.

That situation naturally creates tension. Gobert and Mitchell testing positive for coronavirus exacerbated it.

Mitchell was upset with Gobert, whose reckless actions made him more likely to contract and spread coronavirus. Now, Mitchell sounds ready to move on.

But other issues remain.

Mitchell quickly became Utah’s go-to offensive player. He’s a sensational scorer with a magnetic personality and electrifying dunks. But he’s still developing as a playmaker, which can frustrate Gobert.

Most famously, Gobert cried when discussing his All-Star snub last year. Gobert plays a complementary style that can be underrated. He’s an elite defender who cleans up for his teammates. On offense, does all the little things – screening, finishing, rebounding. Yet, all that diligent screening isn’t always rewarded with passes when he gets open.

Should Mitchell pass more to Gobert? Yes. But Gobert has also let his effort slip this season when not getting touches, and that’s not the right solution, either.

Gobert, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“I understand that I’m annoying. I can be very annoying,” said Gobert, adding that he knows Mitchell’s job is difficult as the focal point of defenses. “I think maybe because he was really good really early, I’ve been very demanding and maybe in not always a positive way. Sometimes you don’t realize it.

“Like with me, people can be hard on me and I can handle it, but for some guys, it can become very frustrating. I can understand that 100 percent. Donovan has gotten better every year since he’s gotten here. I think he’s going to keep getting a lot better. It’s pretty much, I’m the a–hole.”

“If I was 12 years old, I wouldn’t want to be watching f—ing Rudy Gobert. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell. I wouldn’t want to watch Rudy Gobert get dunks and alter shots. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell cross people up and do crazy layups, crazy dunks, of course.

“I totally understand how it works, and I’m fine with it.”

There’s an endearing amount of self-awareness in these quotes.

Gobert and Mitchell have a chance to form a highly successful partnership in Utah. Winning could bond them. On the other hand, losing could push them further apart. Another potential complication: Mitchell – with all his talent and about four years younger than Gobert – will probably soon surpass Gobert as a player. Then what? How will each handle that?

The future is unpredictable, but it’s worth understanding the current relationship between Gobert and Mitchell. To do that, I highly recommend reading MacMahon’s excellent article.

Nets’ Taurean Prince tests positive for coronavirus, will sit out restart

Taurean Prince Nets
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Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Nicholas Claxton all had pre-existing injuries and were never expected to play in the NBA’s restart in Orlando. Wilson Chandler opted out of the restart to spend time with his family.  DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie both tested positive for the coronavirus and did not join the team headed to Orlando on Tuesday. That’s six players from the Nets roster not playing in the restart.

Make that seven — forward Taurean Prince tested positive for coronavirus and will sit out restart as well. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.

Prince started at the four for the Nets and averaged 12.1 points and six rebounds a game.

The Nets are free to sign a substitute player to fill in for Prince, however, that player must have fewer than three years of NBA experience. Whoever the Nets line up, it will be a drop off in quality from what Prince brought to the table.

Expect the Nets to look at big men for substitute players because they need size. Jarrett Allen is the only true center on the roster, and there are only two other players — Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa — are taller than 6’9″. Amir Johnson is one Nets’ big man target, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times.

Brooklyn enters the restart as the seven seed in the East, but just half a game up on eight seed Orlando, a team that is largely healthy and bringing its full roster. It’s likely the Nets slide back to the eight seed, but likely make the playoffs (Washington, playing without Bradley Beal or Davis Bertans, would have to make up two games on the Nets during the eight seeding games, then beat Brooklyn in a two straight play-in series games, a tall order). The Nets reward for making the playoffs? Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee.

WNBA players call for ouster of Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia senator

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA)
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NBA players showed their power by getting Donald Sterling removed as Clippers owner.

WNBA players might be having a similar moment with Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Republican U.S. Senator from Georgia.

Sterling committed incredibly harmful racist and sexist acts for years. Ironically, something far more benign – telling his girlfriend not to post pictures with black people or bring them to games – did him in. But he went too far in a time of growing sensitivity to speech.

Now, there’s even less tolerance for people saying the “wrong” thing. And Loeffler has said things lately that range from disagreeable to offensive.

The WNBA announced its plans for promoting social justice during its upcoming season:

The WNBA will begin its season in late July with a weekend of competition centered around the Black Lives Matter movement, during which teams will wear special uniforms to seek justice for the women and girls, including Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Vanessa Guillen and many more who have been the forgotten victims of police brutality and racial violence. Throughout the season, players will wear NIKE-branded warm-up shirts that display “Black Lives Matter” on the front.   Additionally, “Say Her Name” will adorn the back of the shirts.  “Black Lives Matter” will also be prominently displayed on courts during games.

In response, Kelly Loeffler wrote a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert. A portion of that letter, via Greg Bluestein and Bria Felicien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

All of us have a constitutional right to hold and to express our views. But to subscribe to a particular political agenda undermines the potential of the sport and sends a message of exclusion.

The truth is, we need less—not more politics in sports. In a time when polarizing politics is as divisive as ever, sports has the power to be a unifying antidote. And now more than ever, we should be united in our goal to remove politics from sports.

The lives of each and every African American matter, and there’s no debating the fact that there is no place for racism in our country. However, I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement, which has advocated for the defunding of police, called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure, harbored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country. I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.

Amid the recent unrest in many American cities, this movement advocated the creation of lawless autonomous zones in places like Atlanta. I denounced these zones of violence—for which I have been criticized. However, this same group fell silent over the fourth of July weekend when an 8-year-old girl was murdered under the “mob rule” that I warned about days earlier. This is not a political movement that the league should be embracing, and I emphatically oppose it.

Though I was not consulted about—nor do I agree with the League’s decision in this matter, I am proposing a common-sense recommendation to ensure we reflect the values of freedom and equality for all. I believe we should put an American flag on every jersey. Include it in our licensed apparel for players, coaches and fans.

Women’s National Basketball Players Association:

WNBA:

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert released the following statement:

“The WNBA is based on the principle of equal and fair treatment of all people and we, along with the teams and players, will continue to use our platforms to vigorously advocate for social justice.  Sen. Kelly Loeffler has not served as a Governor of the Atlanta Dream since October 2019 and is no longer involved in the day-to-day business of the team.”

That is a strong statement from the union. Several players previously criticized Loeffler, especially in the wake of a recent interview.

She was asked, “It is not every day you see people carrying long guns in big cities in America. What is happening on the streets of Atlanta this morning?” While Fox News showed armed black men, Loeffler said, “This is totally unacceptable. We cannot allow mob rule. We’re a nation of the rule of law.”

If Loeffler – a self-avowed Second Amendment advocate – were specifically denouncing legal gun carrying because the carriers were black, that’s racist, hypocritical and completely unacceptable. But it’s unclear whether Loeffler could see the images and videos as she answered. It’s also unclear whether she was answering more generally about everything happening in Atlanta.

Regardless, backlash spread.

Renee Montgomery of the Atlanta Dream:

Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm:

Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Washington Mystics:

Natasha Cloud of the Phoenix Mercury:

Layshia Clarendon of the New York Liberty:

Sydney Colson of the Chicago Sky:

There is room for legitimate debate on the issues raised in the tweets and articles they link, including gun control, abortion and the best tactics for fighting racism. Loeffler shouldn’t be forced out simply because she disagrees with some vocal players. (I suspect, in a league as large and diverse as the WNBA, some players agree with her on some of these issues.)

But Loeffler’s letter to Engelbert is particularly off-putting.

Disagreeing with some elements of the Black Lives Matter organization would be one thing. But condemning the Black Lives Matter political movement is something else. Within that movement, there are disagreements on methods and goals. The unifying thread: Believing black lives matter. That’s why Black Lives Matter, despite some extreme views, holds such mass appeal.

It’s also gross for Loeffler to use a false claim about Secoriea Turner to fit her agenda. Protesters have decried the girl’s killing.

The players who are using their platforms to promote racial justice deserve praise. Their plan is good for the WNBA. It’s good for the United the States.

The truth is there has always been politics in sports. White people can more easily ignore it, but that’s their privilege. The many black players in the WNBA still live in a country with systematic racism. Their humanity doesn’t end when they show up to work, and they shouldn’t be told to be quiet and just wear an American flag on their jerseys.

It’s telling that Loeffler’s solution to politics in sports is to put a political symbol on jerseys.

She doesn’t want politics out of sports. She wants politics she disagrees with out of sports.

Now, the WNBA will determine whether it wants her out of its sport.