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Three Things to Know: Lakers’ dependance on LeBron exposed by red-hot Denver

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Lakers’ dependance on LeBron exposed by red-hot Denver. Taking sweeping lessons from one NBA regular-season game is a Trumpian-level overreach, but one game can highlight trends.

We saw that with both the Lakers and Nuggets Sunday night at Staples Center, where the Denver Nuggets won their sixth game in a row, cruising past the host Lakers 128-104.

For the Lakers the trend — and the lesson from it — was clear: They need to find LeBron James some playmaking help.

LeBron is the Lakers’ fulcrum, without him the offense simply does not space and move the same way — they had a season-low 18 assists. Saying the Lakers are better with their MVP-candidate, the man who is arguably the best player walking the face of the earth (even as he turns 35 next week), is not exactly a hot take. LeBron missed his first game of the season Sunday night with a thoracic muscle strain (and he is day-to-day heading towards the Christmas Day showdown with the Clippers).

The lesson from Sunday is the Lakers need another playmaker for their eventual playoff run.

When LeBron sits this season, the Lakers offensive rating falls off 10.7 points to 102.2 — a number that would be dead-last in the league right now, worse than the mainly G-League team the Warriors are rolling out nightly. With LeBron and his league-leading 10.6 assists a game (not to mention 25.8 points), Anthony Davis gets the rock in places he can do damage, players in the weakside corner are just one bullet pass away from being a threat, and the Lakers are dangerous in transition. With LeBron, the Lakers are a top-five offense in the league.

Without him, with everything flowing through Anthony Davis (32 points, 11 rebounds), the Lakers looked a little too much like the Pelicans of recent years. The team Davis forced a trade to get away from. As good as he is, Davis alone cannot run the show.

The best teams, championship teams, have a second shot creator who can keep the offense flowing when playoff defenses scheme to load up on the primary ball handler and take away his favorite plays. In the postseason, things will get harder for LeBron, and that’s when the Lakers can turn to… Rajon Rondo? Kyle Kuzma? Are those guys the Lakers can trust?

They may have to be because there is no good path to adding a quality player in Los Angeles at the trade deadline. Their older players on one-year contracts will not return much in a move (Danny Green would, but the Lakers aren’t trading him). Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s name comes up (paired with Kuzma?), but he has the right to veto any trade and likely would.

It’s the one concern with the playoff Lakers. We’ll see a good test of how they would fare on Christmas against the Clippers (LeBron is expected to be healthy and good to go then).

On the other side of the court, the lesson is Denver’s offense is back — they are having fun again on that end — and with that, they must be counted as one of the top teams in the West.

As of Monday morning, the Nuggets are 20-8 on the season, have won six in a row, and are officially the two seed, just ahead of the Rockets and Clippers (and three games back of the top-seed Lakers, who built a cushion for their current three-game losing streak). Denver may have stumbled out of the gate this season with questions about Nikola Jokic’s conditioning swirling, but the Nuggets have shed the “bust” label, found their footing and look like a threat again.

During Denver’s six-game streak, they have an offensive rating of 119.3, best in the NBA.

Watch them play against the Lakers and it was obvious they were having fun again — Malik Beasley putting his fingers to his lips to quiet the Laker crowd, while Paul Millsap was flexing. Denver has had a surprisingly good defense all season; now that their offense is clicking again the Nuggets need to be mentioned as one of the top threats in the West. Maybe on the second tier (behind the two Los Angeles teams), but a threat like the Rockets and others.

Denver’s season ultimately will be judged on games in May, not ones against a shorthanded Lakers team in December. The Nuggets were bounced in the second round by Portland last season, and to move forward from that spot will be more difficult this season. But that is the ultimate measuring stick.

For now, however, Denver is having fun again. And that’s a good start — and makes them one of the more entertaining teams in the league to watch.

2) Jayson Tatum scores a career-high 39 points in Celtics win against Hornets. For the past few weeks, it felt like Jaylen Brown may be the young Celtic player breaking out this season, he had played well on both ends of the floor and fueled wins.

Sunday, Jayson Tatum reminded everyone what he could do, dropping 39 points (on 15-of-29 shooting) against Charlotte, including taking over late with 22 in the fourth.

Tatum did his damage when he drove to the rim (5-of-6 shooting) and from three (4-of-9). What he also brings Boston is good, switchable, perimeter defense — that’s the end of the floor that has coach Brad Stevens praising Tatum, via NBC Sports Boston.

“I can’t believe it’s not talked about more, how good he is defensively,” said Stevens. “I think, for whatever reason, that gets lost in the shuffle. How much effort he’s been playing with all year has been like — he’s really become a great defender. His length. He chases balls, he challenges shots. He gets his hands on balls or keeps them in their mind that he’s behind them with that length. And then he’s a great rebounder from the wing.

“So he’s a really good defender. He’s a big reason why our defense is where it is as a team and we need him to keep continuing to be at that level.”

Boston has the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA this season (they are not missing steps without Al Horford in the paint), and if the Celtics are going to be the second-best team in the East and a threat to the Bucks, that’s the end where it has to start. Tatum has become key to that.

3) Paul George is welcomed back to OKC with cheers and open arms. Then beaten. If the fans in Oklahoma City had decided to boo Paul George after he forced his way out of town last summer and into a trade to Los Angeles, it would have been understandable. Fans are loyal to their town and team, and they want the same from the players. George re-signed in OKC, then a year later wanted out.

However, he was welcomed with open arms and cheers in his return on Sunday.

Classy.

Oklahoma City is a better team than many fans realize and moved above .500 Sunday with a 118-112 win over George’s Clippers. That was fueled by 32 points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the player the Clippers didn’t want to give up but had to in the George trade. The Clippers knew he would be good, and SGA got his revenge game.

How big a postseason threat the Thunder are — and they look like a playoff team in a West where nobody has run away with the last couple of seeds — will depend on what the roster looks like after the trade deadline. Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, and others could be on the move.

With Chris Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander running the show (and some interesting three-guard lineups with Dennis Schroder) Oklahoma City is going to be a tough playoff out.

Mark Cuban’s plan for a restart, “I don’t think we can go the old tried and true way”

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Wild, fanciful ideas for restarting the NBA that would never fly in a typical year — 1-16 seeding, or maybe a soccer World Cup-style group stage — are getting an airing this season because everything is on the table. As the NBA moves closer to a restart plan, countless ideas are being floated.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has his own plan.

Shocking, I know. But it’s interesting.

“What I proposed is that we extend the playoff format to 10 teams from each conference, and play at least five games prior to going into playoffs,” Cuban said laying out is plan to NBC’s Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live.” And if we do that, every team in the Eastern Conference would have a chance to make the playoffs, and all but two in the Western Conference would do it [Ed. note: Golden State and Minnesota].

“Then, what I would do, once we got 10 and 10, I would reseed them, and 17 would play 20, and 18 would play 19, in a one-game series. The winner then would take on the eighth-place seed in a five-game series, while the No. 1 seed in each conference would get a bye. Then you go ahead normally from there.

“That gives us a chance to have more meaningful games, it gives almost every team a chance when we come back for whatever is left of our regular season. I think we’ve got to change it up some, I don’t think we can go the old tried and true way.”

Cuban later added, speaking to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, that he wants to see all 30 teams come to Orlando for regular season games, building excitement for the NBA’s return in every market. This dream, however, seems a long shot, and Damian Lillard spoke for a lot of players when he said he’s not playing if there is not a path to the playoffs for Portland.

Cuban’s point that this is the year to try something different, not to play it safe, has real validity. This season is already upside down due to the corona

Cuban’s plan is a long shot, but is it any longer a shot than any of the other ones out there?

 

Wizards’ Bradley Beal: Thunder considered trading James Harden for me on draft day 2012

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The first three picks of the 2012 NBA Draft, which was held in June:

1. New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans): Anthony Davis

2. Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets): Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

3. Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal

That August, the Thunder reportedly offered to trade James Harden to Washington for Beal. Washington reportedly rejected the offer due to Harden’s desire for a max contract extension (which Wizards owner Ted Leonsis denied). The Rockets were more than willing to pay Harden, and Oklahoma City dealt him to Houston that October.

Apparently, Washington had a chance to land Harden earlier that offseason.

Beal on “All The Smoke:”

We’re sitting in the draft room. Sure enough, my agent is tapping me. He’s like, “It’s possible you might go to OKC.” I said, “Damn, how am I going to go there? I ain’t even worked out for OKC.” I only worked out for three teams – Washington, Cleveland and Charlotte.

So, the deal was to trade James to Washington, right? OKC gets the third pick. It was either the second or third pick. They were going to trade up to 2 or 3, get me, trade James to Washington.

I would have been in OKC with KD and Russ.

That was a last-minute decision. It was almost done.

I can’t tell whether Beal is also revealing a Harden-to-Charlotte offer or just got mixed up on which teams held the Nos. 2 and 3 picks. Obviously, if Beal was the main prize to the Thunder, they would’ve cared only minimally whether they got him with the No. 2 or No. 3 pick. So, there might have been trade talks with Charlotte, too.

But I’m not convinced Oklahoma City valued Beal that way.

The Thunder were a championship contender. They had just lost in the 2012 NBA Finals to the Heat. Oklahoma City couldn’t have depended on a rookie Beal to contribute on that level.

That’s why – in addition to picks/young player acquired from the Rockets for Harden – the Thunder also got Kevin Martin. The veteran Martin was much better than Beal in 2012-13. (Ironically, the open title window was also a strong argument for just keeping Harden, whatever his contract status).

But the 2012-13 season didn’t go as planned for Oklahoma City. Russell Westbrook got hurt early in the playoffs, and the Thunder lost to the Grizzlies in the second round. Martin left for a lucrative contract with the Timberwolves the following summer.

Even with the long runway Kevin Durant and Westbrook provided, Oklahoma City never got back to the Finals. Beal could have grown into a third star whose shooting complemented the duo. The Thunder might have won a championship with this trade (or, again, just keeping Harden).

The Wizards almost certainly would have won more. Harden has perennially gotten the Rockets to the playoff. (They’ve gone further in years he has had more help.) Beal hasn’t singlehandedly carried Washington like that.

So, this is an interesting “what if?” – if you take it at face value.

Beal’s agent warning him of a trade possibility means something. But we don’t know which other pieces were involved.

The Thunder didn’t trade Harden until just before the rookie-scale-extension deadline, suggesting they wanted to give themselves time to extend him themselves before taking the drastic step of trading him. Would Beal have been enough of a return to give up in June (or even August) on keeping Harden? Maybe. Harden didn’t fully blossom until reaching Houston. But I’m skeptical. At minimum, Harden had already established himself as young and good. Beal was young, promising and under greater team control. There’s significant value in the certainty of a player being at least a near-star, and Harden – not Beal – had that.

Even in hindsight, we’re still revisiting the situation with only limited information.

Report: NBA games could resume in August, not July

Bucks center Brook Lopez and Raptors center Marc Gasol
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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A week ago, the NBA was looking to resume games in July at Disney World.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In fact, there’s a possibility the first games played in Orlando could be in August, not July, sources said.

It’s good the NBA is being flexible on a start date. The coronavirus presents so much uncertainty.

The league is approaching its most lucrative time – the playoffs. The NBA should make every effort to play the postseason, whenever that can be done safely.

Everyone can figure out next season later, especially because there’s a willingness to delay the start.

Report: Pistons searching for new general manager

Pistons executive Ed Stefanski
Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Pistons hired Ed Stefanski as a senior advisor to owner Tom Gores in 2018. Among Stefanski’s duties: Assist in the ongoing search for a new head of basketball operations. But it quickly became clear Stefanski would just run the front office himself.

Now, two years later, Detroit is finally getting around to that general-manager search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Detroit Pistons are opening a search to hire a general manager to work with senior advisor Ed Stefanski, sources tell ESPN.

Stefanski will be working with Pistons and Palace Sports Vice Chairman Arn Tellem on the process to hire a GM, sources said.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

If Stefanski is still running the front office, a new general manager would be the No. 2 – equivalent to assistant general manager on many teams.

After taking over an inflexible roster left by Stan Van Gundy, Stefanski couldn’t do much. Stefanski’s big move was trading Andre Drummond to the Cavaliers just before the trade deadline. That positioned Detroit to have major cap space next offseason, but it’s unclear how much will actually materialize. The salary cap could drop due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pistons must determine whether they’re still building around Blake Griffin, the 31-year-old due $36,810,996 and $38,957,028 the next two years. Last season, he returned to stardom and carried Detroit into the playoffs. This season, he missed most of the year due to injury.

If they’re trying to win now with Griffin, the Pistons are short on quality complementary players. If Detroit is ready to rebuild, its pool of young talent – Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, impending free agent Christian Wood, its own first-round pick – is hardly assured of success.

After years of being stuck on a path charted under the Van Gundy regime, the Pistons can soon pick a new course. This is the time get the front office up to full staffing.