LeBron day out Friday with groin strain, but Lakers face much more dire problems at 2-9

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UPDATE: As expected, the Lakers have ruled LeBron James out for Friday night against the Kings.

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The Lakers are 2-9 (tied for the worst start in franchise history), have lost four in a row, and their short-term problems keep piling up :

LeBron James is doubtful for Friday night against the Kings after an MRI showed a left adductor strain (which is a fancy way of saying a groin strain).

After Friday LeBron is day-to-day, but with his age, history of groin strains, and the fact it’s an injury that is often slow to heal, expect him to miss more time. Maybe a week or two.

THE LONG-TERM IN L.A.

Those short-term concerns about LeBron seem quaint compared to the Lakers’ bigger issue: Finding a way to flip this roster into a contender around LeBron. Fast.

The Lakers promised LeBron they would build exactly that kind of team when he signed a contract extension this past summer that locked him in with the Lakers through the summer of 2024. To say that hasn’t happened is to put it kindly — this Lakers’ roster is not an unlucky 2-9. New coach Darvin Ham came in preaching accountability, defense and finding a role for Russell Westbrook. So far, the Lakers’ defense is better than a season ago (although still the middle of the pack), the team generally plays hard, and Westbrook is playing his best basketball off the bench (18.6 points a game in that role with a 60.1 true shooting percentage). Still, they have the third-worst net rating in the league, and the biggest issue is they can’t shoot.

It leaves the Lakers front office with a dilemma: Throw in the two first-round picks they can trade right now (2027 and 2029), plus Westbrook, and see if they can find a trade that makes the team respectable this season, not wasting a season of LeBron as he turns 38. Or, write this season off, keep their powder dry, and look for a bold move next summer? Chris Haynes details all of that at Bleacher Report.

The question often discussed in Lakers’ headquarters nowadays is whether they should go all-in expeditiously on revamping the roster around James and Anthony Davis, or are they better served to postpone wholesale changes until the end of the season?…

James, who turns 38 next month and is in Year 20 of his NBA career, does not want to waste a season of his high-level playing days in hopes of incoming reinforcements for the 2023-24 campaign, sources say. Other core players on the roster would likewise prefer those picks to be used to elevate this year’s team…

With the team’s trajectory trending south, sources indicate the front office is unlikely to attach those picks to a potential trade out of concern that such a transaction would not significantly change the course of the season.

Put simply, the Lakers front office isn’t interested in the much-discussed Buddy Hield/Myles Turner trade with the Pacers because it might make the Lakers a playoff team, but nothing more. And no, the Lakers aren’t looking to trade Anthony Davis (not yet, anyway).

The reality is the Lakers’ plan to build a champion around LeBron and Davis has become flawed at its core. When they won the 2020 bubble championship (no asterisk here), LeBron was the best player in the league, or at worst he was in the top three. Also in the bubble, Davis had his jumper falling and was a clear top-10 player, impacting both ends of the court. While fans and media have focused on how the Lakers’ front office blew up the 3&D roster around their stars (which was a massive miscalculation), the bigger issue is neither star player has been that good since. Maybe they are both top 15 players right now (All-NBA level, which could be generous), but even if that’s true, neither is a top-five guy who can anchor a title team. If the Lakers chase a third star, they need someone younger, more athletic, and better than they have now.

Howard Beck of Sports Illustrated said on SI’s Crossover NBA Show podcast that front-office executives from other teams think the Lakers have been waiting for a specific player.

“When I brought up the Lakers, the pushback I was getting was ‘they’re waiting for a specific player.’ That they’re not doing the Pacer deal, that they won’t do the Kyrie [Irving] deal now that we for sure thought they would do a couple months ago, is an indication that the Lakers are waiting for a bigger piece to come loose that they think they can trade Westbrook and the two future firsts for.”

Maybe that player is Bradley Beal, who the Lakers have coveted for years and would fit well next to LeBron and Davis (even if Beal is shooting just 32.5% from 3 this season so far). Except, Beal can’t be traded until January after signing an extension this offseason, and even then it would only happen if he demanded a trade — something he has yet to do despite multiple opportunities in the past. The Wizards have no interest in moving on from Beal, something Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington and I discussed near the end of our recent podcast talking Wizards and the East.

Maybe Kevin Durant wants out of Brooklyn (although the Lakers trade package seems woefully short of landing him), maybe it’s someone else we don’t know about yet. Or, maybe other front office executives are searching for an answer because they don’t see a pattern in the Lakers’ behavior.

There is no easy answer. The Lakers backed themselves into a corner — which somehow earned GM Rob Pelinka a contract extension. Now they are stuck between the bad choices of making desperate moves now or blowing off a season when LeBron turns 38. No doubt Pelinka and the Lakers’ front office told LeBron they would give him a winning roster when he signed the extension, but the execution of that has been almost as bad as the Lakers’ 3-point shooting. Now they are stuck and the front office is trying to decide which direction to go.

But there may be no good choices, just less bad ones.

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.