Avery Bradley

Mock NBA expansion draft
(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Mock NBA expansion draft: Warriors, Clippers, Lakers, Suns, Kings

Leave a comment

The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an expansion draft.

Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division (here is the Atlantic Division and the Central Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Pacific:

Golden State Warriors

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 0

Analysis: The Warriors have their core together with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins. Ky Bowman, Marquese Chriss, Damion Lee and Eric Paschall provide value on minimum contracts. That’s all the Warriors need to protect.

Golden State wouldn’t mind seeing Kevon Looney or Jordan Poole selected to get the salaries off the cap sheet. The rest of the players are ones the Warriors won’t lose any sleep over if they’re drafted.

L.A. Clippers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: L.A. has its main guys with four starters under contract. They aren’t being exposed here. The other three players are key bench contributors on good contracts. And Kabengele and Mann were just drafted. Easy decisions across the board for the Clippers.

L.A. could lose Green as a free agent. The Clippers also bet he does undrafted and could return. Rodney McGruder makes too much money for his role.

Los Angeles Lakers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 5

Analysis: The Lakers and Anthony Davis will work out that he’ll opt out before the expansion draft, which makes him ineligible. The rest of the players are role players that Los Angeles would rather keep around LeBron James than risk losing.

Los Angeles won’t be upset to see Quinn Cook or Rajon Rondo selected. They’re both replacement-level players for the Lakers at this point.

Phoenix Suns

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: Phoenix keeps it simple and protects all the guys who are part of its core. The Suns could have left Dario Saric unprotected, but by protecting Saric, they keep the flexibility to re-sign him as a restricted free agent. The rest are all easy decisions.

Of the unprotected players, none of have established themselves as NBA rotation players. If any are selected, Phoenix won’t lose any sleep over it.

Sacramento Kings

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: The Kings will protect their five starters and three key reserves. Cory Joseph is a decision-point, but considering De’Aaron Fox’s injury issues, Joseph is too valuable to let walk away.

Sacramento won’t mind if Jabari Parker is selected, but they aren’t going to pay anyone to do it. Justin James has been an interesting prospect, but the Kings won’t stress if he gets selected.

LeBron James reminds everyone road to Larry O’Brien Trophy still goes through him

Harry How/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.

Lakers handle Clippers, secure mantle of best team in Los Angeles

Harry How/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LOS ANGELES — This past July belonged to the Clippers — they won the offseason landing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Opening night belonged to the Clippers. Christmas Day belonged to the Clippers.

That sowed enough seeds of doubt in the Lakers’ faithful in Los Angeles that Sunday’s showdown with the Clippers — the final meaningful game between these teams before the playoffs — had the feel of a statement game. Even if everyone involved try to deny it was.

LeBron James made a statement. Undeniably.

He showed his team a roadmap to the Finals if these two teams — as expected — meet in the playoffs.

LeBron made it clear — between the Lakers beating the Bucks on Friday night behind his 37 points, and then the Clippers on Sunday — that the Lakers have to be counted as title favorites. LeBron also staked his MVP claim.

LeBron had 28 points and nine assists, breaking down the Clippers’ defense getting and into the paint, plus playing defense on Kawhi Leonard much of the night. Add in 30 points from Anthony Davis and a strong 24 points from Avery Bradley, and you get a 112-103 Lakers’ win over their building roommates on Sunday.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win. If my teammates need me to take the challenge defensively, offensively, whatever, I’ll take it,” LeBron said. “My teammates asked me to do it this weekend and the rest is history.”

What LeBron did was attack — he had nine shot attempts in the restricted area and eight everywhere else (and six of those were threes, which you want him to take). He also got to the free-throw line 14 times and had nine assists, many of which came on drive-and-kicks. LeBron James got to the rim, was physical, and it set a tone.

“I thought they were the more physical team tonight,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought they were into their game plan more tonight. I thought they trusted each other more tonight. I thought it was a good lesson for us.”

The other thing LeBron did was go right at Lou Williams in the fourth quarter. The Lakers hunted and targeted Williams in the pick-and-roll, and with Montrezl Harrell as the center on the floor for much of that time, the Clippers lacked a rim-protecting big behind Williams. The Lakers dominated that matchup and Rivers stuck with it for much of the fourth quarter anyway (that should be one of their lessons for the postseason).

Anthony Davis had another strong game for Los Angeles, but it was the addition of a big offensive night from Bradley that separated the teams. The Lakers know they have the best duo in the league, but every night they need someone to step up and be that third star. Sunday it was Bradley.

“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.”

For the Clippers, the lessons were about the level of player movement — and not just isolation basketball — they need against the best teams.

“I didn’t think we had a lot of ball movement today, I thought our offense let us down tonight more than our defense,” Rivers said. “We made too many defensive mistakes to recover to win a close game.”

The Clippers also got away from riding the hot hand. Paul George had been their best player through three quarters (he had 31 points for the game), then in the fourth he didn’t get a shot attempt until the game was inside two minutes. There were points when the Clippers had Leonard, George, and Marcus Morris all on the court and the shot ended up being a Montrezl Harrell isolation against Markieff Morris — not their best option.

“I thought we got good shots [in the fourth],” George said postgame. “We should have had just a little more player movement, which would have gotten the ball moving around. But that is just how the game goes.”

This game had the feeling of a playoff game from the start — and Staples Center sounded like a Laker home game when they made a big play. Most of those plays came from LeBron and Davis, who had 31 of the Lakers 49 first-half points.

The Lakers were down 53-49 at the half because of depth — Lakers not named James or Davis shot 29.1 percent in the first half and the Laker bench scored just eight points (compared to the Clippers 17). More than that, the Clippers were able to rest their stars at points and for a few minutes played an all bench lineup against a LeBron Laker lineup and held their own.

The real telling stat was that both teams were 2-14 from three in the first half.

The Lakers, behind Bradley, shot 6-of-10 from three to open the second half. Combine that with an attacking LeBron and the Lakers become a very difficult team to beat.

Especially four games out of seven. Which is ultimately what the Clippers have to do if they want to take the crown of the best team in Los Angeles.

Watch LeBron James score 32; Anthony Davis’ big second half lifts Lakers past Grizzlies

Leave a comment

LOS ANGELES — LeBron James scored 32 points, Anthony Davis recovered from an early injury scare to get 28 points and 13 rebounds, and the Los Angeles Lakers returned from the All-Star break with a 117-105 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.

Avery Bradley added 14 points for the Western Conference-leading Lakers, who finished strong after blowing most of their 25-point lead accumulated in a superb first half. Davis had 14 points and seven rebounds in the fourth quarter as Los Angeles improved to 42-12 with its fourth straight win since Feb. 6.

Josh Jackson scored a season-high 20 points for the Grizzlies, who have lost back-to-back games in California after heading into the All-Star break with eight wins in 10. Ja Morant added 17 points as Memphis dropped to 0-2 on its four-game West Coast trip, which matches its longest road stretch of the season.

Davis departed less than two minutes after the opening tip when he bruised his right calf on an opponent’s knee. The All-Star went to the locker room and missed the rest of the first quarter, but returned early in the second before scoring 24 points in the second half.

Although James, Davis and Dwight Howard were busy in Chicago over the break, the Lakers returned with impressive defensive focus across the roster. Los Angeles held Memphis to 15-for-38 shooting and forced 11 turnovers in the first half to jump to a 19-point lead.

The Grizzlies trimmed the lead to four points early in the fourth quarter with a prolonged surge. The Lakers hung on with a series of big plays, including a jaw-dropping rebound dunk by Alex Caruso off a missed free throw by Davis with 6:16 to play.

James clinched it with a driving layup followed by a gorgeous fadeaway jumper with 1:12 left. Davis then hit his second 3-pointer in the final minute.

The Lakers improved to 3-0 against the Grizzlies this season. They meet again in Memphis on Feb. 29.

Lakers will reportedly have conversation with Dion Waiters after Grizzlies waive him

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Dion Waiters was not long for Memphis. He was used for his salary to balance out the money on the trade that brought Justise Winslow to Memphis in what most people will remember as the Andre Iguodala trade. Waiters did not have a role as a two-guard on a Grizzlies team already loaded at that position with the just extended Dillon Brooks, De'Anthony Melton, and Grayson Allen.

The Grizzlies announced Sunday they have waived Waiters, as was expected.

The Lakers will have a conversation about picking him up, according to Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.

Waiters’ former agent is Rob Pelinka, who is now the Lakers’ GM. Waiters’ current agent is Rich Paul, who reps both LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Those kinds of connections get him an interview.

The Lakers are looking to add playmaking and shooting through the buyout market, if they can find it. Waiters can shoot the rock — 37.7 percent from three last season and 38.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes — but is not much of a playmaker. The Lakers are already getting minutes from Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at the two-guard spot. Waiters has played a fair amount at the point in Miami, but he’s not the kind of playmaker the Lakers are seeking.

We’ll see if anything comes of this, but expect the Lakers to be linked to every player bought out in the coming weeks. They also are expected to have a workout with J.R. Smith this week.

The Lakers will be looking for an upgrade after standing pat at the trade deadline then having Darren Collison decide to stay retired.