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LeBron James reminds everyone road to Larry O’Brien Trophy still goes through him

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LOS ANGELES — For nearly a decade, any team that wanted to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy had to go through LeBron James. Whether he was in Cleveland or Miami or back in Cleveland, he was the best player in the league on the best team in the East. Want a ring? Then beat LeBron. Teams like the Spurs and Warriors did, but it was never easy.

Last season, LeBron and the Lakers were not in the title picture. Blame LeBron’s groin injury or him moving to the West or the team built around him, but for the first time in a long time, the road to the Finals did not go through LeBron.

It does again.

LeBron proved that this weekend. With wins over the Bucks on Friday night and Clippers on Sunday, LeBron’s Lakers established themselves as title favorites. Once again, any team with title aspirations is going to have to go through LeBron.

“It’s a really good weekend for us, playing against two of the best teams, the top two (other) teams in the league record-wise,” LeBron said.

After being at both games this weekend at Staples Center, I am more convinced that the ultimate champion this season will be one of these three teams — the Lakers, Clippers, or Bucks.

Let’s break down what we learned about the title chances of each this weekend.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

This weekend was a boost for the Lakers’ confidence.

The players and coaching staff have said all the right things about already believing in themselves, about the process of getting better, about there not being statement games in March — but the fact remains they were 0-3 vs. the Bucks and Clippers this season. If that had become 0-5 this weekend, the vibe around this team would have been very different.

Now they’ve beaten the league’s other two elite teams in consecutive games. The Lakers established themselves as championship favorites.

However, for LeBron to add to his legacy by bringing another title to the Lakers, it means replicating everything that went right this weekend for full series at the end of May and into June. What LeBron gave his team this weekend was a roadmap to a ring, but following that map will be anything but easy.

What does Los Angeles have to do?

It starts with LeBron James playing as well as anyone on the planet — MVP-level LeBron has to show up every night for the Lakers to have a chance. This feels like the one thing the Lakers can most count on.

Next, Anthony Davis has to show up every night — he had 30 points in each game this weekend, plus played fantastic defense. Again, this feels like something the Lakers can bank on happening, but unlike with LeBron we haven’t seen Davis do it because he’s never been as deep as he’s about to go in the playoffs. He has to prove himself on the game’s biggest stages, and while everyone expects he will the question still hangs in the air.

The Lakers also have to keep defending like they did this weekend — which is going to mean a lot of energy expended by LeBron and Davis because they are the Lakers’ best players on that end as well. That said, the Lakers have the third-best defense in the NBA this season, there is no reason to think that will not continue into the playoffs.

Finally, someone else has to step up on offense every game. The Lakers got an impressive 24 points and key three-point shooting from Avery Bradley against the Clippers.

“We know what we’re going to get from him defensively, but what he gave us offensively tonight was gigantic,” LeBron said. “Every time they made a run, or we needed a three, especially in the first quarter and the third quarter when he got hot… he was wonderful.”

It doesn’t have to be Bradley every night, it could be Kyle Kuzma or Danny Green or whomever, but Davis and LeBron are going to need help every night.

Do all that, and the Lakers will have another championship banner.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

The Clippers should walk away from Sunday’s loss with some lessons learned and thinking, “we can beat these guys.”

They know that Bradley won’t shoot that well most nights. They know Marcus Morris — who has struggled with his shot adjusting to his new, smaller role with the Clippers — will shoot better most nights. The Clippers can improve their ball and player movement and be a little less isolation based (although they always are going to be a heavy isolation team).

The Clippers should be thinking, “we beat the Lakers twice this season and can beat them four out of seven.” Because they can.

However, the Clippers have faced end-of-game lineup questions all season, and LeBron and the Lakers’ exploited them on Sunday. That is the question Doc Rivers and company has to answer.

Specifically, the Clippers like to close games with Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, Montrezl Harrell, and Lou Williams — and the Lakers hunted Williams. Every time down. Williams is a poor on-ball defender, and with Harrell at the five the Clippers do not have a lot of shot blocking behind him. LeBron torched the Clippers and Williams and got into the paint at will in the fourth quarter. That’s a problem.

Rivers has to adjust, but every option has trade-offs. The most likely answer is to sit Williams and replace him with Patrick Beverley, but the Clippers surrender a lot of offensive creation with that. The other option is to keep Williams in but replace Harrell with Ivica Zubac for the rim protection, but that hurts in terms of energy and Zubac has his own defensive issues. After Sunday’s game, Rivers acknowledged he had these other options but chose not to use them.

In the playoffs, Rivers will have to make those trade-offs and he knows it. He’s won a ring before, he gets it. The Clippers can’t allow LeBron — or the best player on another team — to hunt Williams and attack him like that in the clutch.

One other thing, something that should come with more time together on the court for the Clippers’ core, is just better crunch time offensive decision making. There were fourth-quarter possessions with Leonard, George, and Williams on the floor, yet the Clippers offense was Harrell going in isolation to try and exploit Markieff Morris. The Clippers had better options, they need to recognize those and go to them. Relentlessly.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

There was a time when people said, “Michael Jordan can’t win the big one” because his teams couldn’t get past the Bad Boy Pistons. There was a time when critics said LeBron would never lead a team to a ring because he was no Jordan — LeBron kept making the right basketball play and passed rather than shot in clutch spots.

The Bucks now have their “this is just a regular-season team” critics. Some wonder if they can get past Boston in the East.

Put simply: In the eyes of critics the Bucks will never be able to win it all — until they do. That’s the zone Milwaukee lives in right now.

This weekend didn’t change that. The Bucks have been clear and away the best team in the NBA this season, and it’s not close. They have the likely MVP (this weekend didn’t change that, sorry LeBron fans) and the best defense in the league. The Bucks are contenders.

However, it’s fair to question how they will respond in the later rounds of the playoffs when teams have the talent and scheme to make life difficult for Giannis Antetokounmpo — Miami did that last Monday, the Lakers on Friday, both Bucks losses. What is the Bucks’ Plan B?

The Lakers did that with LeBron’s defense on Friday night and key guys did not step up — Eric Bledsoe was 5-of-13 and Kris Middleton 5-of-19. The second best Bucks player was Donte DiVincenzo — which was fun, but not sustainable if the Bucks want to contend.

The knock on Mike Budenholzer in the playoffs has been his teams are not flexible and don’t have that backup plan. He didn’t even play Antetokounmpo that much more last season in the playoffs, fewer than two additional minutes a game. That’s his best weapon — Antetokounmpo is averaging 30.9 minutes a game this season, but come the playoffs that should be 39 minutes a game. Or more. If you have the best player in the game, play him. (First, the Bucks need to get him healthy, let him rest as long as he needs to so that sprained knee heals, then rest him a couple more games just to be sure.)

Then someone else needs to step up nightly. Bledsoe simply has to be good in the playoffs, he cannot disappear. Middleton has generally had strong playoffs, but that has to continue. Other players, even DiVincenzo, have to step up.

At the very least, the Bucks need to reach the NBA Finals this season. Otherwise this will be a tremendous disappointment. And that would lead to even bigger “what will Antetokounmpo do?” questions.

Duke’s Cassius Stanley declares for 2020 NBA Draft

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Two Duke players, point guard Tre Jones and big man Vernon Carey Jr., are expected to be in the 2020 NBA Draft and be taken in the late first-round or early second. We talked about them on the recent PBT Podcast breaking down some of this draft class.

Now a third Duke player, wing Cassius Stanley, has thrown his name in the mix.

“It was an absolute joy to coach Cassius this season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “I want to congratulate him and his great family on this decision. I’ve seen Cassius grow both as a player and person here at Duke, and I can’t wait to see how his career develops at the next level. Any NBA team will be very fortunate to get such a mature young man who is not only an incredibly-gifted athlete but a leader that wants nothing but the best for himself and his teammates.”

Stanley is projected as a second-round pick, but his incredible athleticism could get a team to use a late first-round pick on him.

Stanley is a 6’6″ wing and it’s his elite athleticism that will get him drafted as a potential 3&D wing. He averaged 12.6 points per game and shot 36 percent from three as a freshman (but on only three attempts a night). His athleticism gives him potential as a defender. The challenge is he relies on that athleticism, something that alone will not set him apart at the NBA level, he is not a shot creator for himself or others, and he struggles to shoot off the dribble. He can finish in transition, but at the next level nearly everyone can do that.

Stanley is a development project, but his athleticism makes him a good gamble for a team with a strong development program.

Nuggets GM Arturas Karnisovas reported early leader for Bulls’ top job

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What do the Bulls want in a new top executive? Near the top of the list: someone who can build an organization that drafts well and develops that talent. That’s why executives from Miami, Utah, and Toronto were high on the wish list.

Enter Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas, who has done exactly those things in Denver. Karnisovas is the early frontrunner, reports Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports.

Multiple sources told Yahoo Sports that Denver Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas is the leader in the clubhouse…

Sources said [team president Michael Reinsdorf] wants someone who has a presence publicly, especially given the reticent nature of Paxson and Forman the last several years. The Bulls have embraced analytics the last few seasons but having someone who can discern how to apply the numbers against other basketball factors is important to Reinsdorf…

“He wants someone who’ll surround himself with smart people, a great talent evaluator. There’s a need to get better in the player development department, too,” a source told Yahoo Sports.

Karnisovas has worked mostly in the background in Denver, with Tim Connelly being the face of the basketball operations. That would be a big change for Karnisovas, but one he may be ready for.

John Paxson is helping Reinsdorf with the search, but Paxson reportedly will take on whatever role is asked — or step aside completely — to make things smooth for whoever takes over the organization.

While NBA taking big financial hit, rumor is salary cap will not see huge drop

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No NBA games are being played, no fans paying for tickets or buying arena beers, no revenue is coming in. The NBA playoffs will not start on time. If games are ramped up at any point in the next couple of months, it will not be in front of fans, just television only.

Which is to say, the NBA is taking a big financial hit right now. How much is impossible to say, but a billion is not out of the question.

The NBA is set up for the players and owners to split revenue, basically 50-50 (it’s more complicated than that, but it stays close to that range). If Basketball Related Income (BRI) drops around the league, then the salary cap drops and players get less money.

The league’s income is going to suffer, but the salary cap may not that much the NBA players union told agents in a call today, according to Ian Begley of SNY.TV.

What this implies is salary cap smoothing — the league would keep the cap artificially high in the short term, but when revenue spikes back up in the following years that rise will be artificially slowed a little to even things out. The idea is to smooth out the cap number rather than have wild fluctuations.

This is likely part of the negotiations going on between the league and players union over the force majeure clause of the CBA, which allows owners to reduce salaries if games are canceled. If the players give up salary now they don’t want to see future income fall too because the cap cratered for a season or two.

Most likely, the owners and players can work out a cap-smoothing compromise that works for both sides (something they could not do when the new NBA TV deal kicked in and the cap spiked back in 2016). The league’s cap projections were already reduced some by the loss of revenue from China following the Daryl Morey Tweet controversy, the missed games obviously will reduce it further.

How much further appears to be under negotiation.

Bulls’ John Paxson reportedly willing to play small role, or even step aside, for new front office

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It all seems a little too coincidental.

Early reports about a shakeup in the Bulls’ front office had John Paxson, the current vice president of basketball operations, retaining at least some power. There also was a push to help current coach Jim Boylen keep his job.

Then the Raptors’ Bobby Webster, Pacers’ Chad Buchanan, and Heat’s Adam Simon all dropped out of the running for the Bulls job.

Suddenly, there has been a series of reports that Paxson was willing to give up his power and is ready to play whatever role the new GM wants. There was this from K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago.

But the perception that Paxson will be some hovering presence, going kicking and screaming into the night, is simply wrong. Early this season, Paxson communicated his vision to ownership for a new-look, more modern front office. He initiated some of this need for change.

Michael Reinsdorf likely would have arrived at the same conclusion anyway and has taken the reins on addressing the issue. Well before news broke over All-Star weekend, he began performing due diligence and background on a wide variety of candidates.

Joe Cowley at the Chicago Sun-Times took it a step further.

A source told the Sun-Times on Tuesday that not only is Paxson all for stepping aside from his position and acting more as an adviser to the Reinsdorf family when the front-office restructure is finalized, but would completely step down from the organization if the Reinsdorfs and the new-look executive group deemed it better for the rebuild to continue.

Was the “perception that Paxson will be some hovering presence” just among fans, or did it exist among potential candidates, too? Each of the three candidates that dropped out have positons of some power in quality organizations, each is only going to leave for just the right offer, one with total control of the organization.

It all seems a little too coincidental that they all dropped out and then came the rash of reports about Paxson not wanting to retain power. Whether it was true or not Paxson was always willing to step aside, perception matters.

Chicago did interview Utah’s Justin Zanik, another experienced executive from a stable organization who could be a good fit with the Bulls. The Jazz have set up the kind of strong draft-and-development program (Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, etc.) that the Bulls should try to emulate. The Bulls are also expected to interview Nuggets’ general manager Arturas Karnisovas and Magic assistant general manager Matt Lloyd.

With no games going on, there is no rush to make a hire by the Bulls, they have plenty of time for due diligence (as do the candidates). Chicago will want its new head man and his front office staff in place before what is likely a compacted draft and free-agency period, whenever that comes.