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Three Things to Know: It was a good day, Lakers get LeBron game-winner, sign Markieff Morris

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) It was a good day, Lakers get LeBron dagger, sign Markieff Morris.
The ghost of drafts past and playoffs future haunted the Lakers on Sunday — all in the form of Jayson Tatum.

Three years ago, the Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball No. 2, the Celtics took Jayson Tatum No. 3 — and Tatum has proven to be the better pick. On Sunday, taking over playmaking responsibilities with Kemba Walker out, Tatum dropped 41 on the Lakers, forced L.A. to adjust its defense and double him in the fourth. It was Tatum who pushed Boston to a lead in the third quarter. After the game, LeBron gave Tatum a shoutout on Instagram.

LeBron, however, had the final word (the day before the Kobe Bryant memorial in the same building, it was fitting). In what was one of the best games of the regular season — despite some questionable officiating that took the flow out of the game late — it was LeBron’s fade-away midranger over Jaylen Brown that was the game-winner.

 

If the Lakers had drafted Tatum, he likely would have been traded to New Orleans — just like Ball was — to bring Anthony Davis west. Tatum is an All-Star, but Davis was all-world on Sunday with 32 points and 13 rebounds, both team highs. The Lakers don’t win this, or much of anything else this season, without him.

Tatum’s big night was also a reminder the Lakers struggle to slow athletic wings — something that could be a real issue come the playoffs. Big wings — such as Kawhi Leonard and Ben Simmons (more point guard than wing, but same ball handling concept) — have had big nights against the Lakers. Look around the West and you can see where this could be a serious playoff issue.

Can Markieff Morris help? The Lakers officially signed him on Sunday after he cleared waivers (Los Angeles let DeMarcus Cousins go to make room). Morris will come off the bench at the four behind Anthony Davis, and could play next to AD (with Kyle Kuzma at the three) in some lineups.

Can Morris handle Leonard or Paul George or Bojan Bogdanovic? Probably not, but Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma can’t either. Morris is another player the Lakers can throw in that mix. If need be, the Lakers can close games with LeBron on that wing player down the stretch — he can have a defensive impact. And we know he knows how to close games.

2) Zion Williamson was too much for Golden State to handle. Every game, Zion Williamson gets a little bit better. Which is scary.

Over his last five game he has averaged 27.4 points on 63.1 percent shooting. He’s also averaging 3.4 offensive rebounds a game — and if he doesn’t get the rebound, he’ll just rip it away from the guy who did.

That was just two of the 28 points Williamson put up against the Warriors Thursday. Every bucket seemed to be a highlight. Williamson also dropped a defender to the ground.

And, of course, there were the monster dunks.

These are not empty-calorie points that Zion is getting, he could be leading them to the playoffs. The Pelicans are 4-1 in their last five games with a +9.9 net rating. They sit just 3.5 games back of the Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the West, and the Grizzlies have the toughest remaining schedule in the West while the Pelicans have the easiest.

3) Just 56 games into the season, the Bucks have already clinched a playoff spot. On Sunday, Bradley Beal dropped 53 points on Chicago and that still wasn’t enough to get the lowly Wizards a win; they fell to the Chicago Bulls.

The Wizards are ninth in the East, and their loss clinched a playoff spot for the Bucks. Already. Just 56 games into the season — the 48-8 Bucks are 27.5 games up on the Wizards now. The Bucks can lose every game from here on out and they are in the playoffs.

Milwaukee is on pace to win 70 games, and their owner has hinted the team sees that as a goal. The Bucks also have title aspirations, and they may want to ask the Warriors if the push for winning 70+ games is worth it come the playoffs. That said, the Bucks have gotten Giannis Antetokounmpo rest because they are blowing teams out, so he doesn’t have to play late. Antetokounmpo is averaging 30.9 minutes a game and is 72nd in the league in total minutes played in the league this season. His workload has not been that brutal.

Mike Budenholzer just needs to be willing to up those minutes this postseason, up to 42 or more a night some games, to make sure they win. Budenholzer said last season that he didn’t think more minutes for the Greek Freak was the answer to the Bucks playoff struggles, if the Bucks are going to win the East this season — they should, they are the best team — he will need to change that mindset.

Report: Pistons searching for new general manager

Pistons executive Ed Stefanski
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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.

Report: NBA could resume with group stage

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A fundamental conflict for the NBA:

  • The more traditional of a season – all 30 teams playing 82 games, four rounds of best-of-seven series – the league completes, the more more money it will make.
  • The more teams involved in a resumed season, the higher risk of coronavirus spreading throughout the league.

That’s why the NBA is considering a middle ground – resuming without teams far outside playoff position.

But how would the league structure a format for 20 teams?

Maybe a group stage to replace the first round of the playoffs.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer:

The 16 current playoff teams would qualify for the group stage, plus the four teams with the next-best records (Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, and Spurs). The remaining 10 teams would be done for the season. The survey sent to each general manager noted that “tiers” would first be created using the regular-season standings to ensure competitive balance between the groups.

Groups could then be randomly drawn, with one team from each tier going into each group. The NBA is working on approaches to fairly balance the groupings, such as limiting each group to only three Western Conference teams, according to multiple front office sources. Drawings for the group stage could be televised, league sources say.

As an alternative to having groups randomly selected, multiple league sources say the league has considered allowing Tier 1 teams—the Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers—to draft their own groups.

Teams would play opponents within their own groups twice, meaning every team would play eight games. The two teams in each group with the best record would move on.

Based on the current standings, the tiers would be:

  • Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers
  • Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat
  • Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, 76ers
  • Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic
  • Tier 5: Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs

As far as ways to resume with 20 teams, this isn’t bad. The draw – whether random or top-team choice – alone would be a revenue-drawing TV event.

The ninth-place (Wizards) and 10th-place (Hornets) teams in the Eastern Conference might argue they should be included over the 11th-place (Kings) and 12th-place (Spurs) teams in the Western Conference. But Sacramento and San Antonio have better records than Washington and Charlotte. If there were ever a time not to stress conference affiliations, it’s now with the league preparing to resume in a single location.

There would be increased risk for top teams getting knocked out early if their group is challenging. They’ve already lost home-court advantage. But there’s also chance of upset in a regular playoff series. Besides, downside could be mitigated by allowing the top teams to draft their groups* and using regular-season record as a tiebreaker.

*This could even be done in reverse – i.e., the top teams selecting which lower-tier teams not to put in their own group.

The Bucks, Lakers, Raptors and Clippers could rotate selecting lower-tier teams to avoid. Once three top-tier teams have nixed a team, that lower-tier team would be placed in the fourth top-tier team’s group. Each group would still be required to have one team from each tier.

Or maybe the top-tier teams could even rotate sticking lower-tier teams into a specific top-tier team’s group. The Bucks could use their first selection on placing the 76ers into the Lakers’ group, for example.

There are many possibilities how to structure a group draft.

If the NBA locks into resuming with 20 teams, the other 10 teams would be incentivized to vote for whatever system generates the most revenue. Those 10 votes could boost any proposal that would otherwise be doomed by teams trying to clear their own path deep into the playoffs.

This system would satisfy players on marginal teams – like Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard – who want to play only if the games are meaningful. It’d also allow the worst teams just to be done.

The draft order and lottery odds would have to be re-considered with a 20-team group phase. Though that’s a minor issue, it’d involve every team. Again, self-interest would creep in.

This idea has some rough precedent. In 1954, the playoffs began with three-team round robins in each the East and West.

The bigger question is how many NBA teams should resume? But if the best answer is 20, this is the best format I’ve seen.

Lakers’ Jeanie Buss talks steps that led to brother Jim’s removal

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Late Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss set up a very detailed trust and succession plan for his beloved franchise. His daughter Jeanie Buss would be the team’s governor, and his son Jim Buss would run basketball operations. If there was an issue, Jeanie had the ultimate power.

In 2017, after the Lakers missed the playoffs for a fifth straight year and were floundering as an organization, Jeanie used that power to oust Jim and bring in a new front office (Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, of which only Pelinka remains). Recently, Jeanie appeared on the “Daddy Issues with Joe Buck and Oliver Hudson” podcast and laid out the philosophy behind removing her brother. (Hat tip Lakers Nation)

“When my brother wasn’t going with the way my dad did things, it was a little distressing for me…

“You’re down and losing, and then my brother was changing coaches every 18 months. Sometimes you have to make coaching changes, I get that. But when you go from a coach like Mike Brown, whose emphasis was defense, to a coach like Mike D’Antoni, who really doesn’t worry so much about defense, that’s two different rosters that you need. Then the outside world thinks, ‘They don’t know what direction they’re going in.’

“You should be able to see a pathway as you hire a coach, you give him the players for his style of basketball and you make decisions that follow ones before it. You follow the path and what the person is thinking. But I couldn’t see what was going on, where he was trying to go and what our identity was going to be as a team.”

The path was clearer with Magic and Pelinka because they quickly landed LeBron James as a free agent (how much they had to do with LeBron’s decision is up for debate). The Lakers instantly became a win-now team and, a year later, traded a lot of the young players and picks to put Anthony Davis next to LeBron. The result has been the team with the best record in the West heading into the playoffs (whatever they look like).

Jim Buss swung and missed plenty, but he had a few hits as well. From the outside looking in, the biggest challenge seemed to be he operated with a mindset of “Laker exceptionalism” — that the very best players would always flock to the Lakers because they are the Lakers. The NBA doesn’t work that way anymore. No doubt, the Lakers have advantages few franchises can match. But from Jerry Buss to Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak, all through the Lakers’ successful runs, they didn’t approach things with a mindset of exceptionalism. The Lakers’ front office was bold, but it was grounded and smart — they identified and developed talent, they always had a strong core, and they had strong relationships with players. It wasn’t exceptionalism, it was hard work.

On top of that, Jim had become the scapegoat of Lakers’ fans, the focus of their blame for the years not in the playoffs. Fair or not, it became a public relations issue, not just a management issue.

Jeanie made the right move. And it may even lead to another ring soon.

Damian Lillard: I won’t play if Trail Blazers have no shot at playoffs

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Most players on lottery-bound teams reportedly prefer to be finished rather than return as the NBA attempts to finish its season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Someone finally put his name behind that sentiment.

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, via Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

“If we come back and they’re just like, ‘We’re adding a few games to finish the regular season,’ and they’re throwing us out there for meaningless games and we don’t have a true opportunity to get into the playoffs, I’m going to be with my team because I’m a part of the team. But I’m not going to be participating. I’m telling you that right now. And you can put that [expletive] in there,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday morning via phone.

I do feel like if we do come back and our mind is right, we can beat anyone. It’s going to be hard to get going with no fans, you’ve been off all this time and some people are just ready for summer like, ‘[Expletive] it, I haven’t played in a long time and the season is basically over to me. Do I really care like I cared before?’ It’s going to be a lot of those factors going on and that presents a lot of room for a team to sneak some [expletive]. Like, really mess around and knock some teams off and then, ‘Oh, they’re in the Western Conference finals.’ It’s room for that with this situation. So the fact that it’s possible and we wouldn’t get an opportunity at that, that’s weak to me. I ain’t getting no younger.”

In ninth place, Portland is 3.5 games behind the eighth-place Grizzlies. The Trail Blazers might still have a chance to reach the playoffs. It depends on the NBA’s format for resumption.

There’s consideration to bringing back only teams with a postseason chance, anyway. But there’s also talk of all 30 teams playing in order to fulfill local TV contracts.

Lillard is a tremendous leader. If he doesn’t play, that would cast such a negative feeling onto his Portland teammates – and beyond. Lillard’s voice could affect how the entire league handles its return.

With a super-max extension already signed, Lillard has the luxury of being able to afford risking his paycheck by not playing. Not everyone can do that. There are major complications in determining how much money, if any, non-returning players should earn.

This also gets into an issue even in normal times: There are too many games late in the season involving at least one team incentivized to lose. The Trail Blazers have made the playoffs every season after Lillard’s rookie year. He has never had to worry about this since becoming a star. But players and teams annually grapple with games that, at best, don’t really matter. It creates a horrible product.

The concern is just magnified now because of the heightened risk of playing.

The NBA should listen to Lillard’s apprehension, realize he’s not alone and take it seriously. Then, whenever normal play resumes, the league should also realize this type of situation comes up – admittedly, with lower stakes – every year.