Three things to know: Lakers racking up wins but have they answered any big questions?

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers
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LOS ANGELES — 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 going that make the NBA great.

1) Lakers racking up wins but have they answered any big questions?

The Lakers’ schedule to open the season is exactly what an older team trying to figure itself out needed: It is soft and home heavy. We’re obviously talking small sample size, but Los Angeles has the second easiest schedule in the league so far.

That cake schedule has allowed the Lakers to rack up wins and not feel much pressure — or face difficult questions — while it tries to blend in a lot of new faces and find an identity.

Tuesday night’s Lakers 119-117 win over the Rockets is a perfect example. It improves the Lakers to 5-3 and looks good if you only read the headlines: The Lakers have won three in a row, 5-of-6, and their big four future Hall of Famers — LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony — combined for 99 points on the night.

Look past the headlines, and there are a lot of unanswered questions about these Lakers.

It took those 99 points — and a flip-the-switch dominant fourth quarter from LeBron — to knock off a 1-6 Rockets team that starts two teenagers. Houston has athleticism and their kids play yard, but this is the kind of squad an elite team should handle easily (granted, it was the second game of a two-game set against the Rockets, and those tend to be closer).

Concerns about the Lakers start with the defense, which was atrocious much of Tuesday night — particularly in the first half when the Rockets had a lay-up line on their way to 70 points at the break. The Lakers defense is middle of the pack for the season (ranked 15th) and has struggled in the halfcourt in particular. The Lakers have key rotation players — Westbrook and Anthony — who opposing teams will target in the halfcourt, an issue now but a bigger one in the postseason.

Frank Vogel started Anthony Davis at center for the second straight game (with Dwight Howard out), making LeBron James the four. Those have been the Lakers’ most successful lineups this season, and on Tuesday night Davis scored eight of Lakers’ first 14 points, shooting 4-of-5 from the floor, plus had a block and a few boards.

The Lakers’ bigger and more used starting lineup — Westbrook, Kent Bazemore, LeBron, Davis, and DeAndre Jordan — is -11.3 per 100 (according to Cleaning the Glass). However, Vogel said pregame that eventually — likely once Howard is healthy again — the Lakers would go back to starting big. It is what Davis prefers, although Vogel said the Lakers would continue to play more AD at the five this season.

The bottom line is that while Westbrook will push the pace and rack up numbers (Vogel is staggering LeBron and Westbrook more each game), and Anthony provides a scoring spark off the bench, the Lakers are still all about LeBron and Davis. As they go, the team goes.

Los Angeles made its third quarter push against Houston when they went to a heavy dose of LeBron/Davis pick-and-roll (plus some buckets in transition, Houston helped there with seven third-quarter turnovers). Then in the fourth, LeBron took over with 10 straight points, eight of them on drives to the rim the Rockets could not stop. He simply took over the game, and that was enough (barely).

It’s a process, and the Lakers are finding their identity — they are a downhill, attacking team that wants to play fast and get to the rim, all things that look better when Davis is at the five providing spacing. Los Angeles will improve once they get healthy and have Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker back in the lineup. This is a process with the Lakers, one that will take all season.

There is still most of a season left, but the Lakers have work to do — they have yet to truly answer the big questions about defense and matchups, the ones they will be forced to answer come the playoffs.

2) Players still adjusting to the new Wilson ball

You’ve heard all the explanations for why scoring is down: It’s two straight short offseasons taking a physical toll, or it’s the new rule interpretations against non-basketball moves keeping players off the free throw line. The latest one may have some merit, too:

It’s the new Wilson ball.

Paul George was pretty blunt about it after the latest Clippers latest win.

“Not to make an excuse or anything, but I said that about the ball, it’s just a different basketball,” George said. “It doesn’t have the same touch or softness that the Spaulding ball had. You’ll see this year, it’s going to be a lot of bad misses, I think you’ve seen a lot of airballs so far this season.

“So again, not to put an excuse or blame the basketball, but it is different. It’s no secret, it’s a different basketball.”

When they introduced the ball, Wilson said it was essentially the same as the outgoing Spaulding ball, down to the fact Wilson sourced the same leather. Trae Young and Jamal Murray were among players testing the ball and providing feedback last season.

Still, players don’t think it feels the same, and now the NBA players union wants feedback on the new ball ‚ just don’t tell NBPA president CJ McCollum it’s an excuse.

Players are creatures of habit, they don’t like change, and as much as Wilson tried to make it seamless, it is a change. Shooters have not adjusted. Yet.

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Which player will score the most points tonight (Wednesday): Jayson Tatum vs. Orlando, Zach LaVine vs. Philadelphia, or Nikola Jokic vs. Memphis? Personally, I’d got with Tatum against that 30th-ranked Magic “defense.”

How many assists will the Bulls have against the 76ers? Less than 22? Maybe 23-24? More than 32?

Who will win the Celtics vs. Magic game, and by how much?

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Highlights of the night:

Back to Los Angeles, where rookie Jalen Green put on a show scoring 24 points in the loss. The Lakers led by seven with :45 seconds left, but the Rockets came back because of two Green threes to make it a game. The second of those threes — a stepback high-archer over Anthony Davis — is as pure as it gets.

The Rockets had a shot to win the game, but Kevin Porter Jr.‘s shot hit the back of the rim.

Last night’s scores:

Milwaukee 117, Detroit 89
Miami 125, Dallas 110
Utah 119, Sacramento 113
Phoenix 112, New Orleans 100
LA Lakers 119, Houston 117

Pelican’s Green says Zion ‘dominated the scrimmage pretty much’

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The Zion hype train keeps right on rolling. First were the reports he was in the best shape of his life, then he walked into media day and it looked like he is.

Now Zion has his own hype man in Pelicans coach Willie Green, who said he dominated the first day of team scrimmages. Via Andre Lopez of ESPN.

“Z looked amazing,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said on Wednesday afternoon. “His strength, his speed. He dominated the scrimmage pretty much.”

“What stood out was his force more than anything,” Green said. “He got down the floor quickly. When he caught the ball, he made quick decisions. Whether it was scoring, finding a teammate. It was really impressive to see.”

Reach for the salt shaker to take all this with — it’s training camp scrimmages. Maybe Zion is playing that well right now — he’s fully capable, he was almost an All-NBA player in 2020-21 (eighth in forward voting) before his foot injury — but we need to see it against other teams. In games that matter. Then we’ll need to see it over a stretch of time.

If Zion can stay healthy this season, if his conditioning is where everyone says it is, he could be in for a monster season. Combine that with CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram and a strong supporting cast in New Orleans, and the Pelicans could surprise a lot of people — and be fun to watch.

 

PBT Podcast: What’s next for Celtics, Suns? Should NBA end one-and-done?

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NBA training camps just opened and teams have yet to play a preseason game, but already two contenders are dealing with problems.

The Celtics have the suspension of coach Ime Udoka as a distraction, plus defensive anchor center Robert Williams will miss at least the start of the season following another knee surgery.

The Suns have the distraction of a suspended owner who is selling the team, plus Jae Crowder is out and demanding a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not seem happy.

Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and myself go through all the training camp news, including the wilder ones with the Lakers and Nets, breaking down what to take away from all that — plus how good Zion Williamson and James Harden look physically.

Then the pair discusses the potential of the NBA doing away with the one-and-done role and letting 18-year-olds back in the game — is that good for the NBA?

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Report: Price tag on Phoenix Suns could be more than $3 billion

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Six
Harry How/Getty Images
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In 2004, Robert Sarver bought the Phoenix Suns for a then-record $401 million.

When Sarver sells the team now — pushed to do so following the backlash prompted by an NBA report that found an 18-year pattern of bigotry, misogyny, and a toxic workplace — he is going to make a massive profit.

The value of the Suns now is at $3 billion or higher, reports Ramona Shelburne and Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

There will be no shortage of bidders for the team, with league sources predicting a franchise valuation of more than $3 billion now that revenue has rebounded following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a new television rights deal and CBA on the horizon. Sarver purchased the team for just over $400 million in 2004.

Saver currently owns 35% of the Suns (the largest share), but reports say his role as managing partner allows him to sell the entire team (the minority owners have to comply, although they would make a healthy profit, too). Sarver also decides who to sell the team to, not the NBA or other owners.

Early rumors of buyers have included Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), Bob Iger (former Disney CEO), Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, she has a 20% share of the Washington Wizards), and others. There have been no reports of talks yet, and Sarver does not need to be on a rushed timeline.

Meanwhile, a contending Suns team tries to focus on the season despite the owner selling the team, Jae Crowder not being in training camp and pushing for a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not sound happy to be back with the Suns.

Steve Nash on his relationship with Kevin Durant: ‘We’re good’

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In an effort to gain leverage for a trade this offseason, Kevin Durant threw down a “either the coach and GM are gone or I am” ultimatum.

Now coach Steve Nash (and GM Sean Marks) are back in Brooklyn, on the same team and trying to build a contender together. Awkward? Not if you ask Nash, which is what Nick Friedell of ESPN did.

“We’re fine,” Nash said after the Nets’ first official practice of the season on Tuesday. “We’re good. Ever since we talked, it’s been like nothing’s changed. I have a long history with Kevin. I love the guy. Families have issues. We had a moment and it’s behind us. That’s what happens. It’s a common situation in the league.

“We all were hurting, seething, to go through what we went through last year, not being able to overcome all that adversity. Sometimes you lose perspective because you expect to win, but the reality is we were able to talk and discuss what we can improve on from last year. And also keep perspective. We went through a ton of stuff.”

First off, what else was Nash going to say? He knows the power dynamic in the NBA, and Durant has far more leverage than he does — not enough to get Nash fired this summer, but still more than the coach.

Second, Nash could be telling the truth from his perspective. NBA players and coaches understand better than anyone this is a business and things are rarely personal. Grudges are not held like fans think they are (most of the time). Nash saw Durant’s move for what it was — an effort to create pressure — and can intellectually shrug it off, reach out to KD and talk about the future.

What this brings into question was one of the Nets’ biggest issues last season — mental toughness and togetherness. Do the Nets have the will to fight through adversity and win as a team? Individually Durant, Kyrie Irving, Nash and others have shown that toughness in the past, but as a team it was not that hard to break the will of the Nets last season. Are their relationships strong enough, is their will strong enough this season?

It feels like we will find out early. If the wheels come off the Nets’ season, it feels like it will happen early and by Christmas things could be a full-on dumpster fire. Or maybe Nash is right and they are stronger than we think.