Getty Images

Can LeBron James and Magic Johnson lure next big star to Lakers?

3 Comments

Kyrie Irving asked to be traded away from LeBron James and Cleveland because he wanted out of LeBron’s massive shadow and to have his own team.

Paul George pushed his way out of Indiana with his people telling anyone who would listen he was going to be a Laker in the summer of 2018. However, when he had the chance to join LeBron last summer, the Lakers didn’t even get a meeting.

Jimmy Butler is trying to force his way out of Minnesota and the teams on his preferred listthe Heat, Clippers, Nets, and Knicks — do not include teaming up with LeBron.

The Lakers won the summer by landing LeBron — combine him with their existing young core of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and it’s easy to see the potential. Right now, however, this team is not a threat to Golden State, Boston or Houston, right now the Lakers are a middle-of-the-pack team in the West. To get to where LeBron and team president Magic Johnson want to be, it starts with bringing in one more elite player… but the moves of Irving, Butler, and George raise a question.

Can LeBron and Magic recruit their next star to the league?

Yes.

The tag-team combo of Magic (an all-time great player and the model for an athlete-turned-business man) and LeBron (best player on the planet and one of the biggest athlete brands in the world) will be formidable. Throw in the lure of the Lakers’ brand and playing in Los Angeles and LeBron/Magic will land someone.

Just don’t expect it to be easy.

Lakers fans shouldn’t expect every elite player switching teams to just flock to Los Angeles to play with LeBron. Playing with LeBron is not for everyone. For a player who wants the ball in his hands, who wants to be the man and lead his own team (like Irving), playing in LeBron’s shadow is not a draw. Even if the pairing looks good on paper and might lead to a ring. We’ve seen that with the examples above.

It takes a particular mindset to play with the LeBron. Kevin Love was asked about this recently, by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

“You have to follow. You have to learn a lot about that…

“You have to be resilient. I had a lot of hard nights. There were dark times,” Love said. “But I always believed keep fighting, I was stubborn about it. And LeBron makes sure you have a chance to win every year. He’s gotten a lot of guys rings.”

Playing with LeBron forces guys to adjust. Love did. Chris Bosh had to learn how to stretch the floor in Miami and work as a pick-and-pop guy not on the block. Dwyane Wade had always had the ball in his hands before LeBron and had to learn how to cut and move off the ball to thrive with him. For ball dominant players, playing next to LeBron is a massive adjustment.

Players today and their agents get that, which is why not every free agent about to come up is going to fit with the Lakers. Take Kevin Durant for example. If leaves Golden State (still a big “if” even if the team is preparing for the possibility) league sources suggest he’s not going to leave the ball-sharing system and shadow of Stephen Curry to be in LeBron’s shadow and be the No. 2 option again. Durant wants his own team if he’s leaving the Warriors. Or, look at it this way: Remember how much heat Durant took for leaving OKC and jumping to a championship team? What happens if he leaves that to join LeBron?

The Lakers reportedly love the idea of how Klay Thompson would fit with them, and they should. But nobody around the league thinks Thompson is leaving the Warriors. He’s spoken openly and multiple times about wanting to be a Warrior for life. Beyond him, Kyrie Irving has said he will re-sign in Boston and Butler does not want to be a Laker.

There are other big names out there, with Kawhi Leonard at the top of the list. He reportedly wants to come to Los Angeles, although sources have told me (and others have reported as well) that the Clippers could be that destination as much as the Lakers. (Yes, Lakers fans, seriously, Leonard is not a fan of drama around the team and overly bright spotlights, and the Lakers are both those things by their nature. Plus, the LeBron shadow/own team thing is legit.) Also, Leonard may decide to pull a PG13 and stay. After that the free agency talent pool drops off to very good players but not what the Lakers need — DeMarcus Cousins, Goran Dragic, Al Horford, Kemba Walker.

Anthony Davis is the big prize everyone around the league is watching, and Davis switched agents to Rich Paul, LeBron’s agent. However, he has two years on his contract. The Pelicans are not trading him this season, they will get to next summer and put a designated veteran $230 million offer in front of him and dare him to say no. You don’t switch to an aggressive agent if you plan to sign whatever is put in front of you, but that’s a lot of money. If Davis turns the offer down maybe the dynamic changes and the Pelicans talk trade, and maybe not (think Durant in OKC, smaller markets don’t get players like that often and will not always make a trade even at the risk of losing him for nothing). Even if they do talk trade, teams such as Boston and Philadelphia — and, frankly, every team in the league will be in on it.

There are a lot of obstacles, but other names will come up as well and nobody doubts at some point the tag-team of Magic and LeBron will land the Lakers another superstar.

But it’s not going to be simple and easy. Don’t expect a conga-line of stars just dancing their way to Los Angeles and the Lakers.

DeMarcus Cousins in unusual position as he enters first, likely last, season with Warriors

Getty Images
3 Comments

Warriors coach Steve Kerr said not to compare his team to the 1997-98 “last dance” Bulls – and he’s right.

Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are locked up beyond next season. Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins can become free agents, and though Durant is a wildcard, Thompson has been consistent in his plan to return to Golden State.

In 1997, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Chicago coach Phil Jackson were on expiring contracts. Before the season, Bulls general manager Jerry Krause said, “Beyond this contract, Phil agrees it’s better we part company. At the end of next season, there will be a new coach here.” And Jordan  had already said, “Phil should be the head coach, and I shouldn’t have to make the decision to play for another coach other than Phil. Simple as that. Sad as it may be, I will not choose to play for another coach.” So, you do the math.

But that was maybe the last time a star entered a season as likely to leave his team afterward as Cousins with the Warriors.

At least if Cousins is still a star.

Cousins is recovering from a torn Achilles suffered last January. It’s far from certain how the 6-foot-11, 270-pound 28-year-old will play once he gets back on the court. This is a serious enough setback to at least consider Cousins is done as a star.

But if all goes well, his immense talent will shine again. He’ll help the Warriors win their third straight championship and fourth in five years. Along the way, he’ll pick up good habits as he adjusts to Golden State’s system.

And he’ll almost certainly leave in free agency next summer.

The highest starting salary the Warriors can give Cousins next year is $6,404,400 unless they clear more cap space. After a successful season, Cousins should command far more in free agency.

If this season doesn’t go to plan, it’s hard to see Golden State welcoming back Cousins. The Warriors were elite without him and probably wouldn’t hesitate to move on if this experiment fails.

So, either way, he appears to be a one-year rental.

How will it go?

Will Cousins put aside individual concerns, knowing this will be the only year he’ll be in this position? Or will he feel the need to prove himself in the short time before free agency?

Will the Warriors have time to fully welcome him into their culture? Will they care if he fully acclimates, considering it seems he’s just passing through anyway?

If Cousins flourishes with Golden State, will other teams improve offers to Cousins in free agency? Or will they just assign his success to the Warriors’ culture and continue to fret about his leg and attitude?

There is a remote possibility he stays in Golden State beyond this season. Maybe he signs a one-year contract to establish Early Bird Rights, which would allow the Warriors to pay him up to $11,207,700 in 2020, though he could get that much only by signing for at least two years at that point. He could even work toward spending three years with Golden State, which would give him Full Bird Rights and the ability to re-sign for up to the max. Or maybe Durant leaves in free agency next summer, and Thompson is willing to take a massive discount. Then maybe the Warriors could carve out enough cap space to re-sign Cousins to a larger contract.

But that all seems farfetched.

Cousins isn’t entering the ring-chasing phase of his career. He has gotten one big contract, but he signed that before the new national TV contracts lifted player salaries into the stratosphere. It’s hard to see him not caring about getting one monster deal. His season will be building toward that goal.

It’ll also be about the Warriors pursuing another championship, of course. A lot of forces are coinciding in Golden State in a short time, which leads to mounting pressure.

That drove the 1997-98 Bulls to greatness. They won a third straight title before Jordan (retirement), Pippen (Rockets), Rodman (Lakers) and Jackson (retirement) all moved on.

The final-song sentiment isn’t as wide with the Warriors, but it will be worth watching Cousins in his one-man “last dance.”

Klay Thompson ‘really wants to make’ NBA All-Defensive team

Getty Images
9 Comments

Last season, the NBA’s All-Defensive Team guards were Victor Oladipo and Jrue Holiday (first team), with Dejounte Murray and Jimmy Butler (second team).

Is Golden State’s Klay Thompson better than one of those?

He thinks so and said as much speaking to Shams Charania of The Athletic in a recent interview (hat tip Chinmay Vaidya at Watch Stadium).

“The past few years, there’s been some guys where I’m like, ‘Man, I know I’m a better defender than him.’ I really want to make one of those teams. I think I put the work in on both ends to get that recognition.”

Thompson came in a distant sixth in guard voting (Chris Paul was fifth). That’s not far off, but the West is stacked with talent and it can be hard to get noticed.

Much like his offensive game, Thompson’s defense is impressive but can get lost amongst a team with a former Defensive Player of the  Year (Draymond Green) and other guys who can crank it up on the defensive end when they want to (Kevin Durant, for example). Last season, pick-and-roll ball handlers scored 0.85 points per possession when guarded by Thompson (about the league average) and he struggled some when he had to go over picks (tracking stats via Synergy Sports). Also, the advanced stats don’t always love Thompson — his defensive real plus/minus was 26th among shooting guards, and the Warriors were good but not dynamic 1.4 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he was on the court. That doesn’t help his case.

Part of that is Thompson always gets the toughest perimeter defensive assignments, a lot is asked of him on both ends and Thompson steps up. He’s got three rings the last four years on what has been an elite defensive team to show it.

Thompson is starting his campaign to make the team early this season — before it even tips off. That said, his play has deserved serious consideration for years and eventually he is going to make the team. He’s that good defensively.

Why Kevin Durant’s free agency is more about those who come after him

Getty
2 Comments

Kevin Durant is set to begin his season-long game of chicken, one in which those outside of his camp — including NBA general managers — try to ascertain what the two-time Finals MVP wants come the summer of 2019.

His situation mirrors that of seemingly every megastar about to enter free agency. That is, there are rumors abound of What Kevin Durant Really Wants, none of the verifiable. The same goes for his contemporaries: Jimmy Butler wants to be in Los Angeles or New York, but as the number one option; Kawhi Leonard wants to be in Los Angeles, but also perhaps he wants to stay in Toronto; Kyrie Irving wants to team up with Butler; DeMarcus Cousins a big bag of money from just about everyone (this one is probably the closest to accurate).

The story around Durant is that he could want to break out on his own, grab a long-term deal, and once again the certified top option on his own franchise. A three-time champion after another trophy with the Golden State Warriors this season, Durant would re-shape his narrative as The Number One Guy with a new team.

Whether any of this is actually true is, truly, unknowable.

We have entered into a version of the NBA in which players are trying to both commodify their talents best they can while obtaining increasing agency over their own careers. It has helped that salaries in the NBA have risen such that top players don’t need to barter with franchises to ensure their financial security. Those days are over. If they could, all 30 NBA teams would offer a max contract to Durant on 12:01 AM. He’s going to get paid, no matter what.

To that end, players get to make choices based on exceedingly private factors that aren’t always known — even with continuing rumors floating heavy — as agents and handlers try to retain leverage for future bargaining.

These factors, by the way, reported early in the season have the distinct disadvantage of time working against them. Remember when Paul George was headed for the Los Angeles Lakers and nowhere else last season? It doesn’t matter whether the reports were untrue or if George simply changed his mind. The result is that he remains an Oklahoma City Thunder.

So now for the rumors about Durant.

LAS VEGAS, NV – JULY 27: Kevin Durant (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Potential landing spots for Durant include the Los Angeles Clippers, Lakers, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, and even the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant will no doubt be looking to sign a five-year max deal which probably puts him out of reach for the Warriors, lest they decide to drastically change the plan for their core moving forward. Klay Thompson needs a new deal, and the contracts of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston will need tending to the season following.

I tell you all that to tell you this: there is zero sense debating where Durant will land come July 1, 2019. The “facts” are already well-known. They could also all be complete bullshit.

The teams who have the most open cap space are easy to Google. With a little research, it’s also pretty easy to understand which of those teams can do a little financial footwork to get in a better standing come summer. As of writing, the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Chicago Bulls all lead the way in potential open cap space, along with the previously aforementioned Nets, Clippers, Lakers, and Knicks.

Chop out the teams that couldn’t sign Durant to save their lives, and you end up with a short list. Chicago, New York, the Clippers, the Lakers, and Brooklyn seem most suited for his rumored wishlist.

While it would be better content from me to tell you with great certainty which team leads the way in the Kevin Durant Sweepstakes, I cannot. It would be disingenuous. Instead, what’s most interesting when it comes to Durant is the sociological experiment that has become NBA free agency in 2019.

That is to say that money has become so great in this league that after a certain threshold it just doesn’t matter how much it is anymore. It has been posited before that as salaries have risen in the NBA, the ability for players to realistically value dollar numbers of contracts has started to decline. It’s hard to wrap your brain around a contract that’s a quarter of a billion dollars. What’s $50 million here or there when you have the ability to choose with complete impunity?

The summer of 2016 was a boom for a few players, but not for the NBA employment pool at-large. Nevertheless, salaries continue to rise and the cap is projected to go up yet again as we move year-to-year. Along with player agency, the idea that max salaries matter more to players is starting to fade. Leonard certainly didn’t think so when he decided to eject himself from San Antonio, giving up the vaunted Super Max contract in the process. With a max deal guaranteed for Durant should he want it, the same could be assumed heading into his free agency period.

The summer of 2019 could be the start of an era in the NBA in which players decide to sign with new teams based off of minutiae unknowable to the public, away from “basketball reasons” and in Durant’s case, even championships. Yes, the Chicagos, New Yorks, and Los Angeleses will dominate destinations for big-time free agents. But it might no longer matter that a teams in those locations don’t hold any advantages, basketball-wise, over their rivals.

It’s a brave new world in the NBA, and the league’s superstar-centric marketing combined with ever-rising popularity and TV revenue have led us to this logical nexus between player, cash, and choice. No doubt whatever Durant does, it will be most telling about what we’ll see from the signings of max-level players who come after him, in 2019 and beyond.

Steve Kerr says not to compare these Warriors to 1998 ‘last dance’ Bulls

Getty Images
1 Comment

It’s been a while since we’ve seen an NBA champion three-peat. There was the Shaq/Kobe Lakers from 2000-2002, and before that the Michael Jordan Bulls from 1996-98.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr was a member of that 1998 “last dance” Bulls team — but he doesn’t want to compare the two. In part because Kerr knows the expectations are high enough for this team without adding Jordan comparisons to the mix, but also because that was a very different situation. When a reporter suggested it Kerr shot it down, as reported by Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“Last dance?” Kerr said with a smile after his team’s first practice Tuesday. “I hope not. I hope we keep dancing.”

“I think the difference is with Phil [Jackson] in ’98 we all were free agents and we all knew we were all going to be gone, including Phil,” Kerr said. “But we’re not in that same position. We do have plenty of free agents, but we’re not looking at this as the final dance. Like I said, we want to have some fun and enjoy what we have this year and move on from there.”

Kerr’s right, these Warriors are not breaking up — Golden state moves into a new arena next season, you think ownership is going to cheap out now and not pay to keep this thing together as the team moves into a money-making machine of a building?

Klay Thompson is a free agent this summer, but nobody around the league thinks he is going anywhere (in fact, he’s likely to take a discount to stay). Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are still under contract for (Green for two more seasons). Kevin Durant can opt out, and might, and other teams are hoping to try to lure him away with the promise of “his own team.” What happens this season and in the playoffs will undoubtedly impact Durant’s decision, they could win again and he could sign up to stick around. However, even if he left, the Warriors won their first title of this era without him and would still be contenders. Golden State would still be dancing.

Father time, money to pay all these stars, there are factors that will eventually break up this Warriors’ dynasty. Eventually. But that time is not now, and will not be next season, either. Kerr, having been through all this before, is the perfect coach to guide this team now, and keep them focused on finding joy in the game and savoring the moment. He gets it. The Warriors seem to, too.