LeBron can still dominate, lift up Lakers, but will that be enough?

0 Comments

LeBron James is a marvel.

At age 36 (soon to be 37), with more miles on his body than anyone not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron can still take over a game and lift up a team with him like no other. He can win games nearly by himself, and he did it to Indiana Wednesday. It was the second night of a road back-to-back for the other Lakers (LeBron had Tuesday in New York off), Anthony Davis was out sick, and it was the last game of a road trip, the exact kind of game where a team can let go of the rope, take the L and get on the plane home.

LeBron scored 17 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, hit huge threes, got a couple of Pacers fans ejected, and lifted the Lakers to an overtime win in Indiana.

“That’s why he’s the GOAT, man,” the Lakers Malik Monk said.

“What LeBron did tonight was just a performance for the ages. I know these fans and how much they love their hoops here in Indianapolis. And he put on one hell of a show,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.

We need to savor what we get to watch in LeBron — there will not be another player like him. LeBron is the first superstar in the social media age, and that means there are always trolls online — and a few talking heads on TV — ready to take him down and thrash him at the first opportunity because it gets them attention. That’s the reality of the age. But if you love the game of basketball, you need to take a step back, marvel at LeBron, and appreciate greatness when you see it.

LeBron can still lift a team up and carry them for a stretch like no other.

Will that be enough for these Lakers to contend?

The Lakers needed overtime and a LeBron takeover to beat an 8-12 Pacers team, a win that lifted the Lakers to .500 on the season. There are reasons for the slow start. It’s fair to point out LeBron has missed more than half the Lakers games, that Russell Westbrook started slow but has come on in the second halves of recent seasons, that there were a lot of new faces in the locker room and this team is still gelling. Everyone can point to LeBron teams in Miami and Cleveland starting the season slow, finding their footing later, and making the Finals. There’s good reason to say, “let’s see what the Lakers look like around Christmas before we judge them.”

But these Lakers are not a good defensive team, and turning that around will take more than a healthy LeBron.

The Lakers are 22nd in the NBA in defense (using Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time from its stats, but even more favorable formulas have them 19th). They are bottom 10 in halfcourt defense (their transition defense has been solid). Anthony Davis is elite defensively, versatile, and a quality rim protector, but the Lakers are short plus defenders after him. LeBron can defend for stretches, Kent Bazemore plays solid team defense, the Lakers will get Trevor Ariza back from injury at some point, but at age 36 he’s no stopper. After that, it gets really thin.

The Lakers won the bubble championship because of their defense — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Danny Green were all on that team and made important defensive contributions. All are now helping either Chicago or Philadelphia. Dwight Howard and Avery Bradley were on that title team, but neither is defending now at the level they did a couple of years ago.

In a playoff matchup with the Warriors, who guards Stephen Curry? Or Klay Thompson? Or even Jordan Poole? Do the Lakers have the defenders to slow Devin Booker and Chris Paul in a playoff matchup with the Suns? Or Donovan Mitchell in Utah surrounded by shooters and a hard-rolling Rudy Gobert?

Frank Vogel is an outstanding defensive coach, but take enough chess pieces away from him and there’s no strategy he can design that will hide all the flaws.

These Lakers should improve as the season goes on, so long as James and Davis stay healthy — and with those two they are a serious playoff threat. I picked them to come out of the West before the season started.

But LeBron and Davis aren’t going to be enough come the postseason if the Lakers don’t get stops.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

0 Comments

The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

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

Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
0 Comments

In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
Matteo Marchi/Getty Images
0 Comments

“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.