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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.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.

Magic center Mo Bamba had coronavirus

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba has fallen behind Khem Birch as the Magic’s backup center (to Nikola Vucevic). At the NBA’ resumption at Disney World, Bamba has played in only two of Orlando’s four games, receiving just four and six minutes. Magic coach Steve Clifford cited the 22-year-old’s conditioning.

Bamba wants you to know the full story: He had coronavirus.

Josh Robbins of The Athletic:

Bamba received word of his positive test on June 11

The illness temporarily robbed him of his senses of smell and taste, made him unusually fatigued and caused muscle soreness.

“Part of me is reading the temperature of the room and just knowing that there are definitely going to be questions, and sometimes you’ve just got to address them with honesty,” Bamba said. “In this case, I think it’s best for them to have that context and have that understanding of what, exactly, is going on.

“I want people to know that I’m still working as hard as ever, if not even harder, and I’ll get through this.”

Bamba thought he had endured the worst by the time the Magic entered the NBA bubble on July 7. But the false positives required him to have an additional three-day in-room quarantine while his teammates practiced together on July 9, July 10 and July 11.

I appreciate Bamba being so forthcoming. It was easy for people to suspect he didn’t train properly during the hiatus. Though medical privacy should also be valued, transparency often alleviates the worst suspicions.

At least 54 NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus. Does that number already include Bamba? It’s unclear.

After going quiet during most of the shutdown, the league has announced the number of players who’ve tested positive since June 23. Maybe Bamba continued to test positive on June 23 or later. Or perhaps he’s an additional case from the quiet period. There definitely were some cases in that timeframe.

False positives are an issue – an unavoidable one. It’s unfair Bamba was stuck in his hotel room, not training, longer than necessary. But the NBA can’t risk allowing a potentially contagious player into the bubble. Better to err on the side of safety.

The No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Bamba improved steadily from an underwhelming rookie season. He still needs more work to become a quality NBA player. This is a setback, and one that makes him unlikely to contribute much the rest of this season. Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick up next season where he left off when this season got suspended.

Three Things to Know: What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

“This one stings, for sure.”

That was 76ers coach Brett Brown, who has had to deal with a lot of injuries to players during his tenure in Philadelphia. But this one hurts a little more because of the timing. The Sixers will be without Ben Simmons for a while after he suffered a subluxation of the left patella — his kneecap essentially dislocated then popped back into place — against Washington.

The 76ers were adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward during the restart in Orlando. Now there are just questions.

How long will Simmons be out? That’s the big one and the answer is nobody knows for sure. The Sixers are evaluating treatment options. As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, Allen Crabbe had the same injury earlier this year and missed 11 days (three games), but he had no damage to the ligaments or rest of the knee. That’s the most common outcome for this injury and it would have Simmons back around the start of the playoffs. However, if there is any ligament damage, Simmons could be out much longer. (The early reports were the MRI came back clean, but that doesn’t tell us much about the real level of damage other than it wasn’t severe.) Philadelphia has always been cautious when it comes to bringing its stars back from injury.

Who starts for Philadelphia while Simmons is out? That’s one Brown has to decide by today (Friday) and the game against Orlando. He could plug Al Horford back into the starting lineup — the Sixers were +1.4 points per 100 possessions this season with Embiid and Horford on the court together without Simmons (it was -0.7 with all three and the floor spacing was a mess). Or, Brown could keep Horford on the bench and go with another wing such as Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz.

Philadelphia seems locked into the six seed in the East (they are one game back of five seed Indiana with four to play, but the Pacers beat the Sixers last Friday and have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead).

Philadelphia is 6-5 this season without Simmons, and while they can plug other players into the four they will not have Simmons’ elite defense, nor his passing skills, and the new player will not be the same threat in transition. Philadelphia is just not the same threat in the East without Simmons.

2) Portland is in control of ninth seed in West after win, New Orleans loss

There is going to be a play-in series in the West — and Portland is going to be in it.

That much seems obvious after Thursday’s action, where Jusuf Nurkic was dunking on Bol Bol and Portland was picking up a 125-115 win over Denver.

That win has Portland half a game back of  Memphis for the eighth seed in the West — and the 0-4 Grizzlies face a tough game against the Thunder Friday. The West could be tied by Saturday morning.

Portland looks to be a lock for the play-in.

Can anyone else crash that party? Sacramento earned it’s first win in the bubble on Thursday, knocking off Zion Williamson and New Orleans, meaning now both the Kings and Pelicans sit 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies with four to play. Both need to win out and hope Memphis continues losing to have a chance to get into a play-in with Portland.

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Suns and the Spurs both sit two games back of the Grizzlies and with a chance to make a play-in. Just as with the Kings/Pels, the Suns and Spurs essentially need to win out and count on the Grizzlies continued stumbles to have a chance.

Memphis controls its own destiny. But without Jaren Jackson Jr., and with Ja Morant struggling from three, a sharp turnaround is needed.

3) Milwaukee wraps up No. 1 seed in East

This was expected, but the Bucks made it dramatic. Miami led this game by 23 points in the first half, but both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton turned it on — both finished with 33 points each — and Milwaukee came back to get 130-116 win. With that, the Bucks officially wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.

While this is good for the Bucks — who now get an easy first-round playoff matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando — they know they will be judged on the playoffs. This is a Finals-or-bust team. And Milwaukee fans don’t want to think about the options for bust.

Milwaukee has eased into games in the NBA restart, not worrying about wins now and rather being healthy and firing on all cylinders when the games matter. They have that luxury with the lead they built up in the East, but they need to flip the switch eventually. As they did coming back on the Heat.