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Lakers insist they’re trying to compete with Warriors

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The Warriors were already historically great, and then they signed DeMarcus Cousins. If all goes well, they could be the greatest team of all-time. Their floor is championship favorite.

Plenty of teams seem content to wait out Golden State.

Does that include the Lakers?

They have LeBron James locked up three more years, and he doesn’t seem to be demanding urgency. Their other signings – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee – are for one-year deals designed to maximize long-term flexibility. Los Angeles hasn’t flipped any of its top young players – Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart – or future first-round picks for immediate upgrades.

But the Lakers say they’ve designed this roster specifically to compete with the Warriors.

Lakers general manager Pelinka, via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN:

“If your goal is to win a championship, you’ve got to look at the way the champs are assembled and how you can give yourself the best chance to take them down,” Pelinka said of one of the many reasons for the construction of the Lakers’ current roster. “It is certainly part of the equation. … [President of basketball operations] Earvin [Johnson] and I had a conversation, and LeBron echoed this sentiment: I think to try to play the Warriors at their own game is a trap. No one is going to beat them at their own game, so that is why we wanted to add these elements of defense and toughness and depth and try to look at areas where we will have an advantage.”

“We did not want to go out and just sign specialists, ‘Oh, this guy can just shoot,'” Pelinka said. “We wanted tough two-way players that can defend with a level of toughness and also make shots. Listen, the road to the NBA championship has to go through the team that won last year, and we all know the guys up north have a special group. But one of the ways to attack what they have is with defensive toughness. I think we saw that in the Houston series with some of the players that Houston has.

This is intentionally different than the approach the Cavaliers took with LeBron. They prioritized offense and surrounded him with shooters. That left Cleveland short against Golden State the last couple years, and the Lakers are trying something different.

But the Lakers will run into the same problem the Cavs did: Their players just aren’t good enough. Rondo’s best defensive days are long behind him. Stephenson and McGee are good in moments, spacy in others. Caldwell-Pope is a good perimeter defender but struggles when switching inside or against bigger wings.

It’s not as much style as ability. The Rockets had way better players, which is why they came closer than anyone to beating the Kevin Durant Warriors in the playoffs.

The Lakers shouldn’t completely give up on this season. They have LeBron, and he alone gives them a chance. More importantly now, he provides the them a chance to build a more serious contender in future years.

But it’s tough to buy the Lakers’ stated plan for this season.

Las Vegas overflowing with Kawhi Leonard speculation, almost no answers

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LAS VEGAS — Everybody is talking about it. Nobody really knows what comes next.

The second topic on everyone’s lips at the NBA Summer League — after complaining about the shocking temperature disparity in the arena vs. the second everyone steps outside into the desert air — is “What is going on with Kawhi Leonard?”

Nobody knows for sure. Ask 10 team executives, you get 10 different answers. Trust me, I’ve tried it.

Everyone involved is waiting for someone else to blink: The Spurs are waiting on the Sixers/Lakers/others to up their offers and throw all (or most of) their best young players in a package; other teams are waiting for the Spurs to stop asking for everything but a bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon in the trade; other teams (Raptors?) want to jump into the mix in a serious way; and everyone is waiting for Leonard’s inexperienced management team to have better communication with teams interested in a trade, to get the best medical info out there and get teams to trust their word.

Yes, that was the Raptors mentioned in the last sentence. Here is what Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote about Toronto (a team looking to shake things up) and Leonard.

The Toronto Raptors also generated buzz as a potential destination for Leonard. With LeBron James out of the Eastern Conference, perhaps Raptors President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri is willing to swing for the fences and move DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry in such a deal.

DeRozan’s name has bubbled up in trade rumors all summer, but the Raptors are only going to move him in a trade they think makes them better now. If healthy, Leonard would. But that’s where the questions start: Is Leonard fully healthy? Would he consider re-signing with Toronto? Would Leonard’s uncle/management team squash such a move?

That’s where it is with every team, every rumor. There are more questions than answers.

Does Leonard want to be a Laker or does he not want to play with LeBron? Will the Lakers throw Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma into a deal? Does he want to come to L.A. and be a Clipper, and will he sign there next summer (because the Clips don’t have the pieces for a trade)? Will the Sixers throw in Markelle Fultz to get a deal done? That is just the tip of the iceberg of questions.

The Sixers or Lakers are the most likely destinations for a trade, but the Spurs don’t like either team’s current offer, so this drags out. It could drag out until training camp. Maybe longer, although the Spurs leverage is not growing. Free agency in 2019 looms over everything.

That’s not a definitive answer, but only because right now there isn’t one.

LeBron James signs four-year, $153 million contract to join Lakers

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We’ve known this since LeBron James let it be known he was going to the Lakers back on July 1, rocking the NBA world.

Now it is official — LeBron has signed with the Lakers.

That is a four-year, $153 million contract with a player option in the fourth year.

“Today is a great day for the Lakers organization and Lakers fans all over the world to welcome LeBron James, a three-time NBA Champion and four-time NBA MVP,” Lakers President of Basketball Operations Earvin “Magic” Johnson said in a statement. “LeBron is special. He is the best player in the world. He loves to compete and is an awesome leader who is about winning and making sure that his teammates are successful. The Lakers players are excited to have a teammate who has been to nine NBA Finals. It’s a huge step closer to returning the Lakers to the playoffs and to the NBA Finals.”

The Lakers are closer to returning to the NBA Finals, but they are not there. Yet. LeBron’s signing further stacks the Western Conference and puts the Lakers back into the national spotlight, but the roster around him is not going to threaten Golden State or Houston as currently constructed.

The Lakers have a solid young core led by Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma. To that, Magic and GM Rob Pelinka have added Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and JaVale McGee. That’s a lot of big personalities, a lot of guys who are considered playmakers (but aren’t consistent at it), not a lot of shooting and not a lot of consistent defenders. All of which is to say, the Lakers are a good team, a playoff team, but nowhere near a contender yet.

What the Lakers have done is left themselves a lot of flexibility — Rondo, KCP, Stephenson, and McGee are one-year deals. Whether by a trade or next summer in free agency, the Lakers are poised to land another superstar or two who can pair with LeBron and turn this team into a threat to the Warriors. For all the spin about playmakers and competing, the Lakers are about being in position to add an elite player or two. That’s what matters. After that, the rest of the roster can be filled in.

LeBron gave the Lakers four years, which gives Magic/Pelinka time to get that star without overpaying (for example, sending all their good young players to San Antonio now for Kawhi Leonard). They can be smart and patient.

We’ll see if that pays off, and how patient Laker nation — and LeBron — can be.

Where will Carmelo Anthony play next? Bet on banana boat buddies.

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When you wonder where Carmelo Anthony is going to play next, you need to think back to his buddies on the banana boat.

As had been expected, Anthony and the Oklahoma City Thunder are working toward a parting of the ways — via trade, buyout, stretch or some combination of all of it. This was the right move for both sides: the Thunder will save $80 million to $100 million in luxury tax (depending on how a deal is put together); ‘Melo doesn’t want to play a shrinking role in Oklahoma City, and that’s all that would be available to him.

Once this all gets worked out, where will Anthony sign next? On a veteran minimum deal (most likely, maybe a small exception) he can fit financially on any elite team in the league. Let’s break down the contenders, and it all starts with the teams who have his banana boat buddies.

• The Houston Rockets (and banana boater Chris Paul). We know the Rockets like Anthony, they worked very hard to get him last summer before a trade with the Knicks just fell apart (because someone in New York sobered up and thought “we don’t want Ryan Anderson and that contract”).

We also know there’s a natural fit in the roster because Trevor Ariza bolted to take Phoenix’s cash. Anthony can space the floor as a shooter, he hit 35.7 percent from three last season and was solid on spot-up jumpers. The Rockets are an isolation heavy team, and isolations/post-ups accounted for 32.5 percent of Anthony’s possessions last season. And he can still get buckets at a fair rate that way.

The problems are Anthony is not a three anymore — he played either no minutes or just 250 there last season for OKC (depending on how your ranked him with certain lineups), he was always a four — and he is a defensive liability, he can be targeted on the switches that are the heart of the Rockets’ defensive strategy (Anthony did better on switches statistically than you would think during the regular season, he wasn’t bad, but in the playoffs the Jazz targeted him and played Anthony off the court.

• The Los Angeles Lakers (and banana boater LeBron James). The Lakers are trying to amass some veterans and playmakers/scorers to go around their young core and LeBron so they can win games this season, yet remain flexible going forward. Anthony could fit in with that, plus the Lakers’ roster is nearly devoid of shooting and Anthony can still do that.

The challenge with the Lakers is fit. The Lakers don’t want to take the ball out of the hands of LeBron or Brandon Ingram or Kyle Kuzma, and those are the guys who will split time at the forward slots for L.A. next season. Put simply, the Lakers would be slowing the development of their best young talent if they bring in and lean on Carmelo, and that is just not smart. Still, never say never to this as a one-year experiment.

• Miami Heat (and banana boater Dwyane Wade). This actually makes some sense on the court, Anthony could step in and fill the shooting big role that Kelly Olynyk filled for the Heat last season. During the regular season the Heat can hide Anthony defensively thanks to the versatility of James Johnson, Josh Richardson, and Justise Winslow.

Miami’s medical staff and conditioning focus have extended the career of many a player, that could be good for the 34-year-old Anthony. But Erik Spoelstra and staff will want to keep Anthony in a specific role and will be blunt with him about it. Is that what Anthony wants to sign up for?

• The Golden State Warriors. If Anthony really wants to ring chase, he can lob them a call. However, talk about a team that wants to play fast, move the ball, defend hard, and put Anthony into a very small role, this would be the pinnacle of that. Golden State can play Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Jordan Bell key minutes at the four, Anthony would be a luxury. After what Anthony said following the playoffs last season when the Thunder shrunk his role during the playoffs (he didn’t like it one bit) it’s hard to imagine he signs up for this.

• Other teams may jump into the mix. The question Anthony needs to ask himself is what he wants most? Touches and a big role? A title? Those two things are not coming in one package, so where is that line? Only Anthony can answer that question.

Five things we’ve learned through four days of free agency

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In the free agency of 2018 players were grabbing the bag. Fast.

Ordinarily free agency — especially for the big names — plays out over the first week of July as players meet with various teams, try to play teams off one another, and push for the best offer out there. Not in 2018. Not with most teams cash-strapped (only nine teams had more than $10 million in pure cap space to spend signing free agents before free agency). Knowing the market was tight, players grabbed the deal in front of them. Fast.

What did we learn from the first four days of free agency? Here are the five big takeaways.

1) Everyone — players and teams — are focused on 2019. As of this writing, there have been 52 contracts handed out to NBA players this free agency period — 29 of them (56 percent) have been one-year deals, or contacts with an opt-out after one year (stat courtesy Marc Stein). For comparison, the previous couple of years about 30 percent of contracts were one-year deals. This year’s the list of short deals includes big names such as DeMarcus Cousins to the Warriors, as well as the more expected ones, such as Raymond Felton staying with the Thunder.

Why? Money. As mentioned in the intro above, not a lot of teams had money to spend on free agents — the majority of teams were over the cap and/or into the luxury tax, many didn’t even have the full mid-level exception to offer. That changes next summer when many of the contracts signed during the drunken sailor spending spree of 2016 (when the cap spiked) come off the books.

The end result is players are reading the marketplace, then taking one-year deals to get back into free agency when there is more money out there. Cousins did it. Derrick Favors did it with Utah. Tyreke Evans did it. Rajon Rondo. The list goes on and on.

Teams also are biding their time, looking to make a splash in 2019 rather than in this market. Teams are trying to avoid long-term contracts that impact next year’s cap space.

One caveat now for 2019 — the market is going to be saturated. There always will be money to pay the top guys (Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, etc.), and in 2019 that money will trickle down couple tiers below those guys, but there is not going to be enough big money for everyone. Some players who think they are going to get paid next summer will be disappointed.

2) The Lakers won free agency by getting LeBron James, but they are focused on 2019, too. LeBron wasted no time making his call — no formal meeting with the Cavaliers, his agent had a perfunctory one with the 76ers basically just to let them know he wasn’t coming, and that was it. Before free agency was 24 hours old LeBron had made his call and let the world know — he was going to the Lakers.

More than just that, he signed a four-year deal with the Lakers, showing Magic Johnson and company the kind of trust he showed Pat Riley in Miami but never gave to Dan Gilbert or anyone in Cleveland.

With that trust, the Lakers are not overpaying to win now. They have ignored the line thinking that with LeBron at age 33 they can’t spend a year building and must win immediately. Talks to trade for Kawhi Leonard cooled, and the Lakers didn’t throw their remaining cap space at long-term deals for the best players available. Los Angeles didn’t even keep Julius Randle. The roster the Lakers have put together for the 2018-19 season coming up — the young core of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, plus now veterans (and interesting personalities) Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, and JaVale McGee — will be good, it’s a playoff team, but it’s no threat to Golden State or Houston. Even with the greatness of LeBron, this is a team that will hover around 50 wins in a brutally deep Western Conference, and at best make the second round of the playoffs.

The focus is on getting another superstar, another All-NBA level player. Maybe Leonard, via trade or as a free agent next summer. Maybe another star free agent they can sign into cap space (Jimmy Butler or Klay Thompson). Maybe another star unexpectedly becomes available via trade. Maybe a lot of things, but the Lakers have prized flexibility above all, the ability to sign guys or make deals. They want to contend for titles, but they — with LeBron’s blessing — are thinking a season or two down the line. As part of that plan, they want to get LeBron working off the ball more.

3) Yes, the Golden State Warriors got better, but it was more than DeMarcus Cousins that fell their way. The Golden State Warriors got better this summer. No doubt. Not in the “they formed the Death Star” kind of way that NBA Twitter freaked out about, but Cousins — despite his expected mid-season return and being less than 100 percent, lethargic defense, ball-stopping offense in the post — is an upgrade over JaVale McGee or Zaza Pachulia. Cousins will hit some threes, make some passes, and fit in as best he can in the Warriors’ system.

However, the list of things that have given the Warriors a better shot at a title now goes way beyond just Cousins. For one, the only team that was a real threat to them last playoffs, the Houston Rockets, got a little bit worse when Trevor Ariza took Phoenix’s cash. LeBron James came to the West on a team that is not yet a threat. The Spurs are dragging their feet on the Kawhi Leonard situation, keeping on the bench a player who (if healthy) could help form a contender somewhere. The list goes on. Things have gone right for the Warriors this offseason, but it is more than signing a guy coming off a torn Achilles.

4) Restricted free agents have been left hanging. Clint Capela should have some team offering him a max or near max contract to try to poach him from Houston. Marcus Smart has no offers yet. Nor does Jabari Parker. Or Zach LaVine. Or Jusuf Nurkic. Or Kyle Anderson. Or Rodney Hood.

In a tight financial market, teams have spent on the guys they could get rather than tie up their cap space for a few days trying to snag one of the NBA’s restricted free agents. Remember, these are the guys where the team they played for has the right to match any contract. In the case of Capela, Houston GM Daryl Morey has made it abundantly clear he would match any offer and that has scared off potential suitors. In the case of Parker or LaVine, injury concerns have teams hesitant to jump in with the level of commitment it would take to scare off the Bucks or Bulls. And so on and so on down the list.

The bad news for these restricted free agents is there are not a lot of teams with money left — Sacramento, Atlanta, a few others — and those teams are not looking to spend a lot and win more right away. Those teams are more likely to take on a bad contract for a future asset than overpay to try to steal a player away. The options for the restricted free agents are not getting any better. Expect a few to play for the qualifying offer then become free agents next summer (see item No. 1 on this list).

5) Oklahoma City got the band back together, but they are going to pay a lot to do it. The number is staggering — $300 million. The Thunder got their man — Paul George will be back on a new max contract. As expected, Carmelo Anthony opted in to his $28.7 million. Jerami Grant will return and sign a three-year, $27 million contract. Combine all that with Russell Westbrook‘s max contract that kicks in, plus the repeater tax, and the Thunder are lined up to pay the largest salary plus tax bill in NBA history. That $300 million bill would make the Lakers or Knicks blush.

Is it worth it to run back a 48-win team that was bounced in the first round of the playoffs?

In OKC, they know that in the past nine months two stars have chosen them, chosen to stay in their market over going to Los Angeles or New York or wherever. That’s a big win. This team believes it was better than it showed down the stretch and into the playoffs. Ownership says its worth whatever price and they will pay it for a year.

Around the league, other teams expect the Thunder to make a couple of cost-savings moves. Just something to keep an eye on.