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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.

Joel Embiid out for 76ers-Knicks, evaluations ongoing

Joel Embiid
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Joel Embiid left the 76ers’ loss to the Cavaliers last night with a shoulder injury.

How much time will he miss?

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

With Ben Simmons already sidelined, Philadelphia faces a talent deficit against many teams. Maybe not the Knicks. But many teams.

Of course, after getting routed by Cleveland yesterday, the 76ers can’t take any victory for granted.

More than anything, Philadelphia needs time for its somewhat-ill-fitting players to gain chemistry together ahead of the playoffs. That can’t happen with Embiid and Simmons sidelined. It’s getting late, but it’s not too late – depending on Embiid’s and Simmons’ eventual diagnoses.

Even if Al Horford plays better at center without Embiid and Tobias Harris plays better at power forward, the 76ers will face disruption when Embiid and Simmons return to full strength. Or, worse, Embiid and Simmons won’t return to full strength this season.

Estimates on NBA players using marijuana: 50%-85%

Marijuana enthusiast and former NBA player Stephen Jackson
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Even as marijuana becomes increasingly legalized around the country, the NBA still bans the drug.

Why hasn’t the players’ union fought harder to eliminate draconian penalties for weed?

Maybe because so many of its members just use marijuana, anyway.

Tom Haberstroh and Monte Poole of NBC Sports:

Six different NBA players, who did not want to be identified, estimated that the percentage of active players using marijuana in some form – buds, edibles, concentrates, CBD oils, lotions, patches – was at least 50 percent and as high as 85 percent.

We don’t know how often players get caught violating the NBA’s marijuana program. The first (no penalty) and second ($25,000 fine) violations aren’t announced. The third violation (five-game suspension) is announced but not as specific to marijuana. I found just five suspensions in the last three years that match a marijuana violation.

Any discussion of the NBA’s marijuana policy ought to include a question: Why ban the drug?

Some want to present a clean image to fans. Some want to set a trap for players who are irresponsible enough to get caught.

But it’s hard to make the case this is about actually keeping players off marijuana. If so, the policy is drastically failing.

That survey was part of Haberstroh’s and Poole’s deep dive into marijuana in the NBA. I recommend reading it in full. The story of the one time Stephen Jackson – who said he smoked marijuana his whole NBA career – tried pain pills is particularly memorable.

Celtics assistant coach hit with 15-year show-cause penalty by NCAA

Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Celtics reportedly suspended assistant coach Jerome Allen about two weeks after he pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe while at Penn.

Now, Allen will have a tougher time if he ever wants to return to college basketball.

Allen was hit a 15-year show-cause penalty after he accepted $300,000 in bribes to get a wealthy Florida businessman’s son into the University of Pennsylvania.

The Quakers, out of the Ivy League, also were slapped by the NCAA with two years of probation, fined $5,000 and given recruiting punishments. Allen’s show-cause penalty is meant to limit a coach’s ability to work in college sports after breaking NCAA rules.

“While Penn Athletics and its men’s basketball program accept the penalties handed down by the NCAA, it is unfortunate that this process did not fully differentiate wrongdoing for personal gain versus wrongdoing for competitive gain in penalizing the institution in addition to the involved individual,” Penn said in a statement. “he University of Pennsylvania was harmed by the actions of its former head coach and the men’s basketball program received no competitive advantage. We are hopeful that this case will lead to changes in how the NCAA processes similar situations moving forward.”

Allen played for the Quakers between 1992–95 and coached the team from 2009–15. He went 66-104 with the Quakers. He was hired by the Boston Celtics in 2015 and remains on the coaching staff.

Allen was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a fine last July in the college bribery case. Allen received a lenient sentence after testifying for prosecutors against Philip Esformes in a $1 billion Medicare fraud trial. Esformes was convicted in April of 20 counts including money laundering and obstruction of justice and awaits sentencing.

Allen testified that he accepted Esformes’ money to help the businessman’s son, Morris, gain acceptance as a “recruited” basketball player at Penn.

Rumor: Pistons told Lakers that Derrick Rose was unavailable in trade

Pistons guard Derrick Rose vs. Lakers
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The Lakers were interested in trading for Derrick Rose.

Why didn’t the Lakers land the Pistons guard?

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

From what I understand, when the Lakers called the Pistons and expressed an interest in trading for Derrick Rose, the Pistons said, “Hey, we appreciate you calling. But we’re not trading him. Dwane Casey likes him. We think he’s going to be important for us next year.” It’s not even about what the Lakers offered, it wasn’t enough. He wasn’t available.

The Pistons definitely had a high asking price for Rose, who’s locked up for a reasonable $7,682,926 next season. Rose is Detroit’s biggest draw and has a strong bond with Pistons executive Arn Tellem.

If the Pistons absolutely refused to trade Rose, that was an error on their part. They’re going nowhere this year, and it’s far from certain Rose will maintain his production at age 32 next season. Even if he does, the lacking rest of the roster probably won’t create a winner. The trade deadline might have been the time for Detroit to maximize its return from Rose. At the very minimum, it was worth seriously exploring.

But there are several possibilities that should stop you from blindly accepting this report at face value:

  • This might have been a negotiating tactic by the Pistons. Though that approach would have also made it more difficult to negotiate a satisfactory Rose trade, it could have pushed the Lakers into a great offer.
  • Maybe Detroit just didn’t like Los Angeles’ limited collection of tradable assets. Kyle Kuzma isn’t for everyone. What the Lakers interpreted as Rose being unavailable might have been more specific to them than they realized.
  • Perhaps, the Pistons – with Rose still in the fold – leaked this to show their commitment to him. That’d make them look bad in some corners for their stubborn loyalty to an aging veteran. But it’d sure make Rose feel appreciated.
  • Perhaps, the Lakers – who made no in-season trade – leaked this show their commitment to chasing a championship. This shows they tried and paints Detroit as unreasonable. Negotiating trades can be difficult (especially after Kobe Bryant’s untimely death). The Lakers have made only one real trade with Rob Pelinka running the front office, for Anthony Davis. That saga was full of complications. In the end, Los Angeles got Davis, but the Pelicans secured maximum return. If the Lakers look back and regret not adding a helpful player, this report pins blame on the Pistons rather than Lakers management for not getting a deal done.