Since coming to the Clippers, he has averaged 20.6 points a game off the bench, twice winning Sixth Man of the Year, and his pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell is as smooth and dangerous a combo as there is in the league. Come the playoffs, while teams are trying to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Lou Williams will be a change of pace scorer with a second unit that can quickly tilt the game towards Los Angeles.
But when Williams first got to the Clippers, Doc Rivers was not thrilled.
“When we traded for Lou, I was not having Lou,” Rivers said. “I saw a guy that kept getting traded. And I appreciated his offense, but not nearly, never thought it was this good… When he finally showed up three days before training camp, I was not having him. I was like, ‘We’re not gonna work’, you know?..
“I brought him up in the office and I told him my feelings,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘Lou, you’re one of these guys that wanna do whatever you wanna do, and you don’t want to buy-in. We asked everybody to come in. Everyone did except for you… I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been traded five years in a row. Why would I buy-in to you?’, and I didn’t have an answer.”
To be sitting on the couch in late March and streaming “The Peanut Butter Falcon” or “Don’t f*** with cats” because there isn’t any basketball to watch feels wrong. No NBA battles for the eighth seed, no late pushes for Defensive Player of the Year or even MVP. No NCAA March Madness. Nothing. And no idea when the NBA is coming back.
It’s been the strangest of NBA seasons. One that feels like a scene out of Space Jam.
The thing is, this was already the strangest of NBA seasons before the novel coronavirus forced the league to suspend games back on March 11.
Just think about all the stuff we saw before the coronavirus changed our lives.
One Daryl Morey Tweet upends NBA’s relationship with China
The NBA season hadn’t even started when things got weird. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey sent out a Tweet showing support for the protestors in Hong Kong, a Tweet that barely registered a ripple of recognition stateside. NBA players or people from teams getting political barely generates a shrug here because we’re both used to it and had the concepts of free speech baked into us at a young age.
In China, Morey’s Tweet touched the third rail of politics and things blew up. Soon sponsors were pulling out of deals and NBA games were off Chinese television. When the NBA released a statement that read as wanting to appease the league’s business partners in China, plenty of people stateside — Senators and presidential candidates, even the creators of South Park — pounced to make a political point, saying the NBA was putting the almighty dollar over the freedom of speech it says it champions. The league had to come out and set the record straight with a second statement, backing Morey, and then hoping it would all blow over.
Before the coronavirus literally stopped it, the entire NBA world seemed to grind to a halt on Jan. 26, when a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others crashed into a foggy hillside in Calabasas, California. There were no survivors.
Tributes poured in — not just at Staples Center but from around the NBA and around the world. Kobe’s impact and inspiration were global. His “Mamba Mentality” had influenced a generation of players (and people not in basketball), and he came to be a guru of sorts that countless current players leaned on for advice — Devin Bookereven got a Kobe-related tattoo based on Kobe’s words to him.
Nothing, however, was as moving as the Kobe Celebration of Life that came at Staples Center. Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, gave a powerful speech that brought an arena to tears.
Michael Jordan — the man that helped fuel Kobe and became his friend — spoke from his heart. He also had the funniest line of the day.
At Staples Center (even for Clippers games), the numbers and names of the other legendary Lakers’ players have been covered up, and just Kobe’s 8 and 24 were visible in the rafters. It seemed a fitting tribute this season.
That alone was strange because Westbrook was the guy who stayed and embraced Oklahoma City when Kevin Durant bolted for Golden State a few years prior, then Westbrook went on a historic run of triple-doubles. However, when Paul George forced his way to the Clippers via trade, Westbrook relented and went to join another former Thunder star in James Harden in Houston.
It never really worked, not on a contender level, anyway. Harden and Westbrook played next to, not really with, each other and Houston didn’t look any better than they did the season before (the Rockets were 34-20 at the All-Star break, they won 33 games before the break the season before).
But before the break lame-duck coach Mike D’Antoni found something that worked: real small-ball. Start P.J. Tucker — a 6’5″ corner-three shooting forward — at center, have nobody taller than 6’7″ on the floor. Make sure everybody can shoot the rock, and make other teams adapt to them. It may have been a lineup tried first out of injury desperation, but it worked. The Rockets went so all-in they traded center Clint Capela to Atlanta at the deadline.
For a while, it all came together and the Rockets went on a streak winning 10-of-12 and shot back up the standings. Eventually teams seemed to adapt (there was a four-game losing streak just before the suspension) and there were legitimate questions about how it all would hold up in the playoffs, but in the regular season the Rockets were must-watch television again.
And Harden is going to win another scoring title, averaging 34.4 points per game.
The resurgence of a 35-year-old LeBron James as serious MVP candidate
Nobody questioned that LeBron James could still dominate basketball games, we had seen it in the playoffs for years. When focused, he was still as good as anyone on the planet, a dominant force of nature unlike anyone else the NBA had seen (or, at least seen since MJ or Wilt).
However, for years, LeBron had largely coasted through the regular season, particularly on the defensive end. He was saving energy, not dialing it up every night, and placing a priority on the postseason over the regular season. This had gone back to his second stint in Cleveland — where he won another title — and continued into his first injury-riddled season in Los Angeles.
Not this season. At age 35, LeBron held nothing back. He came out of the gate playing hard on both ends of the floor every night, becoming a disrupting defensive force while scoring 25.7 points per game and leading the league with 10.6 assists a game every night. He was attacking again like we hadn’t seen in years.
It feld weird bcause it was unexpected at this age. We’d need to go back to Karl Malone, or maybe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to find a player at this age having this kind of impact.
LeBron, driven by the arrival of Anthony Davis and the realization he does not have that many years left in the game to win another title, had played at an MVP level all season. The award may well go to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had another spectacular season as well and pushed his Bucks squad close to 70 wins, but the impact of LeBron was unquestionable. When he sat, the Lakers’ offense struggled, which is a big part of the “valuable” portion of his MVP case. The season being cut short hurt LeBon’s chances to make that case over the final 20 games.
There was a real rivalry in Los Angeles for once
For many years, the Clippers had been — at best — the cute little brother in Los Angeles. They were not the heart of Los Angeles basketball or a bigger draw, even when the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin “Lob City” Clippers were clearly the better team and a potential contender. The Los Angeles market always has been about the Lakers. There also was no feeling of a rivalry because even the years the Clippers had been better the Lakers were not in the mix for a title. The little brother was not in the way.
This season the LeBron/Davis Lakers were legit title contenders — and the Clippers may be their biggest foe.
The Clippers are no longer the backward-run franchise of the Donald Sterling years, this is one of the best-run franchises in the league now and that word had gotten around to players. The Clippers were a team guys wanted to play for, Steve Ballmer was an owner guys wanted to play for.
That helped the Clippers win the off-season, landing Kawhi Leonard as a free agent and trading for Paul George. Combine those two elite talents with a playoff-level core already — Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, and the list goes on — and the Clippers were the deepest team on paper in the NBA. The Clippers were legitimate title threat, once they got healthy and put everyone on the court.
The crash of Golden State from five-straight NBA Finals to worst team in the NBA
Everyone understood this would be a down season — a “gap year” — for the Warriors. Kevin Durant had left for Brooklyn, and after tearing his ACL in last year’s Finals nobody expected Klay Thompson to suit up this season (except maybe Thompson himself).
Then four games into the season, Stephen Curry fractured his hand, followed by four months of missed action.
At that point, the wheels came off, and the Golden State Warriors went from the team that went to five straight NBA Finals to the worst team in the NBA. The Warriors were 15-50 when play was suspended, leaving them with the worst record in the league by 4.5 games. Even with Curry back, and now a healthy Andrew Wiggins on the wing (the book is still out on that trade), the Warriors were going to finish near the bottom of the pack.
It has always been all about next season for the Warriors: A healthy Curry, Thompson, and Draymond Green, with Wiggins, a high draft pick (or whomever they can trade that for), and a solid bench, should put the Warriors back near the top of the NBA. This season, however, was a strange and ugly one for the Warriors.
Carmelo Anthony was outside the NBA looking in. After being waived by the Rockets 10 games into the 2018-19 NBA season, the future Hall of Famer could not find a new home. No team picked him up last season, no team wanted to sign him this summer. The concerns from teams were mainly about Anthony’s defense — never good it had been a disaster in Houston — and whether the production was worth the attention he would bring.
Enter Portland. Already without Jusuf Nurkic for much of the season, and early rash of injuries — including to Zach Collins, sidelining him most of the season — left Portland desperate for frontcourt help. They turned to Anthony in a marriage of desperation.
At age 35, Carmelo Anthony proved he was not washed. He’s going to get to walk away from the NBA on his own terms (probably). Which is amazing and a little weird considering where we were a year ago.
Luka Doncic having Dallas on pace for the greatest offense in NBA history. Statistically.
Last season, the Golden State Warriors put together the greatest team offensive season in NBA history, with an offensive net rating of 115.9 (that’s points scored per 100 possessions). That just bested the 1987 Showtime Lakers and the 2017 version of the Warriors, who had net ratings of 115.6. Then came the 1992 Jordan Bulls and last season’s James Harden/Chris Paul Rockets at 115.5.
This season’s Dallas Mavericks, led by second-year player Luka Doncic, blew them all out of the water.
Dallas had an offensive rating of 116.7 when play was suspended. Through 67 games, Dallas had been the best of them all, with Doncic’s masterful pick-and-roll decision making setting up Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry, and others in a game of marksmanship. Dallas has been entertaining, and Doncic has pushed his way into getting MVP votes (down-ballot, but still top five) with his play.
The high offensive rating may be a product of the times and three-point shooting, but it’s still weird to say this Dallas offense may have been better than any other. Ever.
There was so much more
The strangeness of this NBA season went beyond all that. There was:
• The likely end of San Antonio’s 22-season playoff streak.
• Ja Morant mania.
• Zion Williamson mania surpassing Morant-mania.
• John Beilein’s weird, short tenure as Cavaliers coach.
• Kenny Atkinson getting fired late in a playoff season for his injury-riddled Brooklyn team.
And that list goes on; it was all weird.
Then the coronavirus came and made it all that much stranger.
Mock NBA expansion draft: Warriors, Clippers, Lakers, Suns, Kings
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We have a new No. 1, with their dominant weekend the Lakers move into the top spot, with the Clippers still right on their heels. Houston took a tumble after a rough patch of losses.
1. Lakers (49-14, Last Week No. 2). In a dominant weekend with two wins over the next two teams in these rankings, the Lakers played to the strengths that will make them tough to beat come the postseason. One is LeBron James’ IQ — his ability to read the game, hunt the mismatches, and dictate play to his liking is unparalleled. The other is the size of the Lakers’ stars — the 6’9” LeBron and the 6’10” Anthony Davis are hard to match up with because they are so big and skilled. A trap game loss to Brooklyn followed those big weekend wins.
2. Clippers (44-20, LW 4).Marcus Morris continues to struggle adapting to his new role and situation in Los Angeles, shooting just 38.6% on 9.5 shots a game, and 28.3% from three. He struggled against the Lakers on Sunday and the Clippers need him to be a scoring option when it gets to the second round of the playoffs and beyond. Doc Rivers also has to find a solution to the Lou Williams/Montrezl Harrell defensive issues at the end of games, the Lakers weren’t the first team to target Lou-Will in close games.
3. Bucks (53-12, LW 1). Fortunately it doesn’t appear the Giannis Antetokounmpo’s knee injury is anything serious, he’s missed two games and likely will miss a few more as Milwaukee will wisely error on the side of caution. The Bucks are running away with the East and what matters is getting the Greek Freak, Eric Bledsoe (who has to be better in the playoffs than he was against the Lakers), Brook Lopez and everyone else healthy before the postseason starts.
4. Raptors (46-18, LW 6).Norman Powell came back from injury and was on fire. In his last five games he has averaged 23.6 points per game on 54.7 percent shooting, while hitting 39.4 percent from three, helping carry the Raptors to a string of wins (four in a row). Then, as his season has gone, he sprained his ankle 1:35 into Monday’s game against Utah. Toronto just cannot get and stay healthy this season.
5. Celtics (43-21, LW 5). Reality hit Boston in the past week as they had Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward all missing time with injuries, plus Jayson Tatum’s shooting returned to human levels — they dropped 4-of-5 before a win Tuesday. Boston needs to get everyone, particularly Walker, right before the playoffs start, even if that means sacrificing some games. Boston’s win in Indiana Tuesday started a string of 7-of-9 on the road.
6. Heat (41-23, LW 9). Winners of 5-of-6 with a soft schedule ahead this week, Miami seems on target to hold on to the four seed and be home for the first round of the playoffs (likely against Philly or Indy). To win either of those matchups they will need playoff Jimmy Butler, and he sat out the second half against Charlotte with a toe issue. Expect him to get a little time off down the stretch to make sure he is right when the playoffs tip-off.
7. Thunder (40-24, LW 10). Winners of 8-of-10, and the only two losses in that stretch are to the Bucks and Clippers. Oklahoma City is trying to track down Utah for the four seed and to have home court in the first round, and with two games against the Jazz on the schedule — including one Wednesday night — that looks like a doable goal for Chris Paul and company. It helps that they will get Shai Gilgeous-Alexander back healthy for that game.
8. Nuggets (43-21, LW 7). A couple of wins (against Charlotte and what was left of Milwaukee) do not cover up the fact Denver’s defense is 5.7 points per 100 possessions worse since the All-Star break. It forced coach Mike Malone to keep Michael Porter Jr. on the bench against Charlotte (he’s not yet much of a defender). The Nuggets need to find that defense fast with 7-of-8 on the road starting tonight in Dallas (and the one home game in that stretch is the Clippers).
9. Rockets (40-24, LW 3). Houston’s small-ball caught teams off guard at first, and the Rockets won 10-of-12 when they first committed to it. However, the tide turned and they lost four in a row before beating the struggling Timberwolves Tuesday night? It’s not been one simple problem, the Rockets have been bottom seven in the league on offense — James Harden can’t buy a three and Russell Westbrook isn’t finishing the same way — and defense in the last five games. Now they are at the Lakers and Trail Blazers before the schedule softens up into next week.
10. Mavericks (39-27, LW 8). Dallas will make the playoffs, but it has a real motivation to string together some wins — they currently sit as the seven seed and that means the Clippers in the first round. If the Mavericks can make up two games and pass either the Rockets or Thunder then Dallas likely gets Denver in the first round, a much better matchup for them.
11. Pacers (39-26, LW 11). Indiana went 4-1 on a recent string of road games, but keeping both Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo healthy at the same time has proven a challenge. The pair has played just 10 games together this season and now Brogdon is week-to-week with a torn left rectus femoris (which connects the hip and quadricep). Indy needs to keep finding wins, injured or not, if they are going to hold off the 76ers for the five seed in the East.
12. 76ers (38-26, LW 12). With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons out, the 76ers defense has fallen apart, worst in the NBA over the last five games. That was expected, what wasn’t expected was Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson stepping up and getting Philly to play its best offense of the season over those same five games. Embiid should return in the next week to stabilize the 76ers defense, but the team is just hoping Simmons can return from the pinched nerve in his lower back before the playoffs.
13. Jazz (41-23, LW 13). Utah beat up on the East (at least until it ran into Toronto) and a five-game win streak moved them back up to the four seed in the West, but now the real tests come (starting with surging Oklahoma City Wednesday). Joe Ingles struggled at first when returned to the bench, but he has found a groove of late with Jordan Clarkson and the two of them have made Utah’s bench formidable again, which could help keep them in the top four and at home for the first round of the playoffs.
14. Magic (30-35, LW 16). The Magic have won three in a row, right after losing three in a row. That inconsistency comes because the defense — that was the best thing about the Magic earlier in the season — is 25th in the league since the All-Star break. Orlando is just trying to outscore teams (they have the best offense in the league since the All-Star Game), and that always leads to inconsistent results. Orlando needs to string together some wins and get in front of Brooklyn to avoid the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.
15. Grizzlies (32-33, LW 14). For Memphis, the playoffs have started — every game the rest of the way has meaning, especially Thursday night’s showdown with Portland (and the looming home-and-home with New Orleans in a week). The good news for Memphis is they may be more healthy for some of these games, they are expected to get Jaren Jackson Jr. (left knee soreness) and Justise Winslow (back soreness) back on the court. It’s going to be a little longer for Brandon Clarke, but he should return this season.
16. Nets (30-34, LW 17). While there are tabloids full of speculation about Brooklyn off the court, they have rattled off three straight wins on it, including an upset of the Lakers on Tuesday. The Nets and Magic are in a “we don’t want to face the Bucks in the first round” race for the seven seed (not that Toronto or Boston would be a picnic). With Jacque Vaughn as coach, DeAndre Jordan (the good friend of Durant/Irving) is back in the starting lineup and Jarrett Allen is coming off the bench (in case you had any questions about who has the power on this team).
17. Pelicans (28-36, LW 15). The Pelicans have been one of the unluckiest teams in the NBA this season, they have the point differential of .500 team — they should be 32-32 — according to Cleaning the Glass’ calculations. Basketball reference suggests more like 30-34. Even with the worse of those records the Pelicans would be just 1.5 games out of the playoffs and look like more of a lock with their soft schedule the last month of the season, as it is fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 60% chance to catch and pass the Grizzlies for the eighth seed. To get to that soft part of the schedule, the Pelicans have to play a rough week of the hot Kings (another team in the playoff hunt), at the Jazz, then at the Clippers.
18. Kings (28-36, LW 18). Quietly the hottest team in the chase for the eight seed, they have won 7-of-10 and that includes a big weekend win against Portland. Sacramento is digging itself out of a hole from its 12-22 start to the season, which makes one wonder if the combination of a new coach, a trip for a preseason game in India, and some new faces took an especially hard toll on them (it may not be, the Pacers did the same trip and started 22-12).
19. Trail Blazers (29-37, LW 19).Jusuf Nurkic is expected to make his return to the court Sunday against Houston — and they need him back for their playoff push. It’s less about the offense, although he provides some interior scoring, it’s on defense where he can protect the rim and be a big body inside that keeps teams from getting to the rim. Before that, Portland faces Memphis on Thursday night in what feels like a must-win game for the Blazers down the stretch.
20. Spurs (27-36, LW 20). Can the return of LaMarcus Aldridge to the rotation turn around the Spurs’ playoff push (he helped them get a win in his debut). San Antonio quietly keep hanging around the playoff chase in the West, it are just four games back of Memphis, but making up that ground when the Spurs play such poor defense is the reason fivethirtyeight.com gives them just a two percent chance of keeping their playoff streak alive.
21. Suns (26-39, LW 22). Phoenix may be out of the playoff picture but it is not going quietly into that good night — Ricky Rubio racked up a triple-double in a win against the (shorthanded) Bucks, and Devon Booker is getting heavy minutes from coach Monty Williams. Phoenix has played fairly well on the road this season (13-17), which is good because eight of their next 10 games are away from home.
22. Wizards (24-40, LW 21).Bradley Beal is lighting up the league and making a serious All-NBA push (no matter how bad the team around him is). In his last 10 games, Beal has averaged 37.5 points per night and is hitting 48.1% of his threes on nearly 11 attempts a game. Beal may have to keep putting up numbers in losses because the Wizards have the toughest remaining schedule in the East.
23. Hornets (22-42, LW 26). Charlotte has dropped four—of-five, but in a league without moral victories, these look a lot like moral victories. They pushed the Bucks, lost by one to the Spurs and two to the Nuggets, beat the Rockets, then went double OT with Atlanta. PJ Washington is a find and is going to be a key part of whatever is ultimately put together through this rebuild process in Charlotte.
24. Bulls (22-43, LW 24). The Bulls have started to get healthy with Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen all back, but take Zach LaVine out of the offense and it falls apart for the Bulls. At least now Coby White is finally starting, in the 10 games since the All-Star break he is averaging 24.7 points a game and shooting 40.7 percent from three.
25. Knicks (20-45, LW 25). Who will be the Knicks next head coach? Does Leon Rose want a player development and culture guy? Because if so that team just over the bridge let Kenny Atkinson go. Or, as expected, are the Knicks going to look hard at veteran guys like Mark Jackson or Tyronn Lue. The name I keep hearing from sources is Tom Thibodeau, although part of that is just people connecting the dots because Thibs and Rose are friends.
26. Pistons (20-45, LW 23). Detroit has dropped four in a row and 11-of-12, with the worst offense in the NBA during that stretch (on the sort of bright side, the defense is just outside the bottom 10). Still, this team has some players to watch down the stretch in Christian Wood and Sekou Doumbouya (Wood is playing for his next contract right now, and that’s always good motivation.
27. Cavaliers (19-46, LW 29). There will be no coaching search, Cleveland locked up J.B. Bickerstaff as their man with a multi-year contract. The Cavaliers are a respectable 5-6 since he took over mid-season, and more importantly Bickerstaff has a good relationship with both the young players on the team and the front office. This is a good hire for their long-term rebuilding plan (which is what they should be focused on).
28. Timberwolves (19-45, LW 28).Malik Beasley has been tearing it up for the Timberwolves. He was acquired as part of that massive four-team trade where Minnesota’s primary target was D’Angelo Russell, but Beasley is averaging 20.7 points per game and is shooting 42.6 percent from three. This has been the best stretch of basketball in his career, and it’s well timed right before he hits free agency this summer.
29. Hawks (20-46, LW 27).Cam Reddish has started to find his groove of late, in his last five games he has averaged 18.6 points per game and shot 56.7 percent from three. He scored 28 points against Washington’s “defense” last Friday night. There are flashes of bright spots around this team but everything good seems undone by their defense, that end of the floor has to be the focus this summer and heading into next season in Atlanta if they have playoff dreams.
30. Warriors (15-50 LW 30). The Warriors found another player who may be able to play a role for them next year in Mychal Mulder. A good shooter at the G-League level, he came to the Warriors on a 10-day contract and averaged 11 points a game, showing a little promise as a shooter and starting to find more of a comfort level as he is around longer. The Warriors signed him on a good multi-year contract and he could be a nice role player for them off the bench next season.
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.
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.