Westbrook on joining childhood favorite team Lakers: ‘I’m going to take full advantage of it’

0 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Russell Westbrook was a Lakers fan from childhood, and he skipped school to attend their championship parades. After he became close friends with Kobe Bryant, they spoke about the responsibility and honor of playing for this decorated franchise.

Yet even after Westbrook became an NBA superstar with the autonomy now available to basketball’s best players, he figured the timing would never be right to suit up for his beloved hometown team — let alone alongside two fellow superstars with a real chance to win his first championship.

“Some of these dreams don’t come true for people like myself,” Westbrook said.

After spending the last half-decade racking up spectacular numbers for teams with little chance of major success, Westbrook is joining the Lakers for his 14th NBA season. Los Angeles general manager Rob Pelinka pulled off a spectacular trade to team Westbrook with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on a reconfigured Lakers roster designed to win rings now.

When it came together over the past week, the 32-year-old Westbrook said he repeatedly found himself at a loss for words.

His broad smile said plenty when he held up his gold No. 0 jersey Tuesday alongside his parents and brother.

“Being from LA, you always wish that you could play for your home team,” Westbrook said. “That’s definitely something that always circled around in my mind. Maybe one day? But I always would come back and be like, ‘Ah, that probably won’t happen.’ I just had to wait and see. But now that we’re here, I’m going to take full advantage of it.”

The Lakers believe they can take full advantage of both James and Westbrook, a pairing that seems potentially difficult. Westbrook famously is among the most ball-dominant players of his generation, while James has become an exceptional offensive initiator and point guard alongside his innumerable other skills.

Westbrook, who has several eponymous auto dealerships in the Los Angeles area, is ready to play a complementary role to keep the Lakers on the road to a title.

“LeBron is one of the best players to play this game, and his ability to do everything on the floor allows me to just figure it out,” Westbrook said. “I’m coming to a championship-caliber team, and my job is to make his game easy for him, and I’ll find ways to do that. As it pertains to ball-handling, it really doesn’t matter. There’s many different ways you can impact the game without having the ball in your hands. I’ve been able to do that for a number of years, and we’ll figure it out.”

Westbrook’s confidence is echoed by coach Frank Vogel, whose recent contract extension underlines Pelinka’s faith in his ability to figure out how to win with this extremely talented, not-so-young roster. Along with Davis, Los Angeles will have three of the NBA’s top five active scoring leaders with James (first), Carmelo Anthony (second) and Westbrook (fifth).

“Anytime you have three great players like this, there is an element of sacrifice required, and we’ve all talked about that and are all-in on that,” Vogel said. “But these three guys can do it all. They’re all make-the-right-play players. It’s not just about scoring or being a one-dimensional player. They can all do it all. I’m most excited about seeing what the three of them on the court at the same time looks like.”

Westbrook’s ability to create opportunities for his teammates is unquestionable: The nine-time All-Star averaged a triple-double last season in Washington for the fourth time in the last five years, leading the NBA in assists for the third time in four seasons with a career-best 11.7 while adding a career-high 11.5 rebounds.

Vogel expects Westbrook’s ball-pushing ability to improve the Lakers on the fast break, where they were a below-average team last season while Washington was the NBA’s best. The Lakers’ defense also will change markedly after they had the NBA’s best last season.

But instead of keeping their core intact and hoping for better health after last season’s team floundered without the injured Davis, the Lakers made massive changes headlined by the departures of Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell to the Wizards.

“I think it was an opportunity to make an aggressive move that we felt like bettered our probability to bring the 18th title to the Los Angeles Lakers,” Pelinka said. “We felt like this was an opportunity to maximize our ability to do what we’re obsessed to do.”

Alex Caruso, Andre Drummond, Ben McLemore and Markieff Morris are signing elsewhere, and Dennis Schröder is on his way out after turning down a hefty contract.

In their places are Westbrook, Anthony, Dwight Howard, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza, Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk and Kent Bazemore. The challenge of building a championship team nearly from scratch is enormous, but Westbrook feels prepared.

“The roster is great,” Westbrook said. “A bunch of guys I’ve already known, which is even better. I’m always looking at the roster and figuring out how I can make other guys better, simple as that. I’ll find ways to do that with the roster. I’m really looking forward to getting with the guys and figuring it out.”

Khris Middleton reportedly set to return to Bucks Friday vs. Lakers

0 Comments

The Milwaukee Bucks are about to get better. Likely a lot better.

Which should worry the rest of the league because the Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season: A 15-5 record with the best defense in the NBA and an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now they are about to get Khris Middleton back.

Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN. Middleton had been recovering from wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly in Milwaukee, Middleton is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense — he is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at the end of games, asked to create for himself and others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Without him so far this season, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has struggled, ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession (via Cleaning the Glass). Overall the Bucks have a middle-of-the-pack offense because of it.

That is about to change.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, having Middleton back makes the Bucks much more dangerous. Which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.

Three things to know: It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

0 Comments

Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

The Detroit Pistons had a two-part plan down the stretch and in overtime against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

First, aggressively trap Doncic out high on every pick-and-roll, make him give up the ball and dare any other Maverick to beat you.

Second, put the ball in Killian Hayes’ hands and turn him loose.

The result was Hayes hitting two clutch 3-pointers in the final 1:15 of overtime to lift the Pistons to a big 131-125 win at home over the Mavericks.

“They were switching me into a one-on-one matchup, so I knew I could get a shot off,” Hayes said via the Associated Press. “The first one felt good and the second one felt even better.”

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 to lead Detroit.

A frustrated Jason Kidd after the game rightfully questioned his team’s defense — Detroit, without Cade Cunningham, put up a 126 offensive rating for the night.

However, this loss speaks to the larger issue with the Mavericks.

Luka Doncic finished the night with 35 points on 50% shooting with 10 assists, but he had just seven points and two assists in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Pistons focused on getting the ball out of his hands (Doncic had the same number of points in the fourth and OT as the Pistons’ Marvin Bailey III). Nobody else on the Mavs consistently made the Pistons pay. The lack of secondary shot creation is a real issue, and while it’s nice to see Kemba Walker back in the league it’s a big ask for him to change that dynamic. The Mavericks beat the Warriors the other night, but it took a 41-point triple-double from Doncic, and that’s what it will take a lot of nights.

Doncic is playing at an MVP level this season, and against Detroit he consistently made the right basketball play in the face of double teams. But the load the Mavericks are asking of him is going to wear Doncic down over the course of the season, and it will cost the team games. The man needs some help (and it may not come until next season).

2) Bucks Khris Middleton expected to make return Friday night vs. Lakers

The Milwaukee Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season, compiling a 15-5 record with the best defense in the league behind an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

And now they are about to get a lot better.

Khris Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers. He has missed training camp and the start of the season following wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly, he is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense, the guy with the ball in his hands to create for others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Milwaukee’s halfcourt offense has struggled without him, they are ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession in the halfcourt (via Cleaning the Glass). It has held the Bucks’ overall offense back this season.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, just having Middleton back makes the Bucks that much better. Which is bad news for the rest of the league.

3) Celtics extend Al Horford for two seasons beyond this one

Al Horford, age 36, is going to stick around in the NBA for a couple more seasons.

Horford and the Celtics reached a deal on a two-year, $20 million extension (which kicks in next season).

This is a pay cut for Horford — who will make $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia — but it’s a fair deal for both sides. This puts Horford closer to league-average money, which lines up with his value on the court at this point. Horford gets a couple more guaranteed years in the league, Boston gets a quality rotation player locked up, but at a low enough figure that if Father Time starts to win the race they will be okay.

Horford has had to play a more prominent role to start the season in Boston with Robert Williams still out following knee surgery. He is averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Eventually, Joe Mazzulla needs to get the old man a little rest, but until the Celtics starting center returns he has little choice but to lean into Horford.

Celtics lock-up Al Horford with two-year, $20 million extension

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
0 Comments

Brad Stevens has locked up the core of this Celtics team — the one that reached the Finals last season and has the best record in the NBA to start this one — through the summer of 2025.

They did that with a two-year, $20 million extension (that kicks in next season). The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and later confirmed by the Celtics.

Horford, 36, is making $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia. While he never fit well as a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, he has worked well as a role player in Boston’s front line. The Celtics have locked him up at a deal closer to the league average and about his value now, at an average of $10 million a season (both years are fully guaranteed). It’s a fair deal for both sides, and a low enough number that if Father Time starts to win the race it doesn’t hurt Boston much.

With Robert Williams still out following knee surgery, Horford has seen his minutes increase to start this season but he has handled it well, averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Joe Mazzulla will likely try to get Horford some rest down the line when he can, but for now he’s leaning on the veteran.

And the team has rewarded him.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
0 Comments

Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.