GM Danny Ainge calls Celtics’ blockbuster trade “unlikely”

4 Comments

The San Antonio Spurs want the Celtics to go all-in on the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes — an offer of Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris (for salary balancing), and next year’s Kings’ first-round pick (No. 1 protected only) could win the bidding.

Danny Ainge and the Celtics are not moving fast on this — nor should they be. Do nothing this summer and the Celtics are still probably the team to beat in the East next season (let’s see how free agency shakes out before getting to formal with rankings). Sources say that Boston is not eager to include Brown in any deal, and they are not doing anything without both fresh medical reports on Leonard’s quadriceps tendonitis, and talking to the man and his representatives. Which is wise.

Boston president Ainge also admitted it makes a deal getting done unlikely. Here is what he said, via Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

“If I feel like it’ll help our team — we explore every trade of players of certain magnitude or superstar, first-ballot Hall of Fame-type of players,” Ainge said Friday after the Celtics formally introduced first-round pick Robert Williams at the Auerbach Center. “We’re going to take a look and kick the tires and see if there’s something there. But that’s all.

“I think those things are unlikely.”

Right now the Lakers and Sixers are the teams pushing hard to get a deal done, both feeling pressure because they believe that if they land Leonard, LeBron James will shortly follow.

The Lakers appear to be the frontrunner. Los Angeles is trying hard not to put all their best assets on the table — reportedly they have been slow to offer Brandon Ingram. It’s going to take him to get a deal done (I have been told the Spurs do not want Lonzo Ball), and probably Kyle Kuzma as well, plus a third team to absorb Luol Deng‘s contract (and that team will want a serious sweetener in the mix). For the Lakers, that is worth it if it lands Leonard and LeBron, but they are rightfully trying to extract the best deal they can. Los Angeles is also reported to be talking to Denver and other teams looking to unload a bad contract and would surrender a first-round pick the Lakers could give the Spurs as well, but taking on that contract would likely mean no Paul George (who, according to sources, is seriously considering a short contract to stay in OKC).

Philadelphia’s offer is reportedly Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and the Miami Heat unprotected 2021 pick. The Sixers ould include Markelle Fultz instead of Saric, if the Spurs wanted, and they have other picks and options to throw in the mix.

It’s in the Spurs hands right now, and they are going to be patient and wait for the best offer they can get. They can afford to wait on Boston, putting pressure on L.A. If the Lakers think they can get Leonard and not give up Ingram or other key assets, this could drag out. Complicating LeBron’s decision.

Still, things are trending the way Lakers fans want.

Another report Spurs will not trade Kawhi Leonard within West

Getty Images
13 Comments

The people around Kawhi Leonard made it clear (through leaks to the media, not by talking to the Spurs at first): Leonard wants out of San Antonio, and he wants to go to Los Angeles. Specifically, the Lakers.

Almost as quickly, the Spurs leaked that they were not going to trade Leonard to the Lakers or any team in the West.

Sam Amick of the USA Today echoed that sentiment in his discussion of LeBron James‘ offseason options on Saturday.

But in the days that followed, the Spurs wasted no time in sending this message all around the NBA: The only Western Conference team he might be playing for is theirs.

Fellow West teams have been told, in essence, to get lost – none moreso than the Lakers, according to ESPN. As it stands, the Spurs are determined to either fix the situation or trade Leonard to an Eastern Conference team.

Leonard has leverage here: He can tell teams he will not re-sign with them and will leave as a free agent. That will scare off most teams who don’t want to put in

Would it scare off Boston or Philadelphia? The rumor is no. Those teams have real interest in Leonard, and both have the assets to get a deal done and make the bet that a year in their cultures, with their coaches and top players, a year contending, and with their fans and city would win Leonard over. Just like Oklahoma City made that bet with Paul George. Also, whoever trades for Leonard will be able to offer a five-year, $188 million contract, while as a free agent the max will be four years, $137 million. For a guy who just missed almost an entire season with an injury, that guarantee can matter.

Boston could go all in on an offer — Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, the Kings first-round pick next season (top one protected) and the Clippers first round pick next year (lottery protected). Philadelphia could put together an offer of Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Miami’s unprotected 2021 pick (the first year high schoolers likely re-enter the NBA draft, making it a deep one).

The question is would those team put in all those assets on a bet they would win Leonard over?

The other big looming question, when the offers start to come in will a rational Spurs front office reconsider and look at a trade from the Lakes of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, a future first, and the contract of Luol Deng to balance out the numbers. Would they consider it superior because they like Ingram? (That trade may require a third team to take on Deng’s contract, and the Lakers might need to throw in Lonzo Ball or some other sweetener to get a team to take on Deng’s $36 million remaining.)

Expect the Spurs to take their time with this, try to win Leonard back over, then consider all their options. They are in no rush, in fact, they’d love to create a bidding war for Leonard. Any offer from Boston and Philadelphia on the table in July will be on the table in September when training camps open. The Lakers, however, may be in a very different space.

It’s going to be a very interesting next few weeks.

Can Lakers form LeBron-Kawhi-George superteam?

19 Comments

Two weeks ago the cry from some corners of the Internet and a lot of talk radio hosts was that superteams were ruining the NBA…

Until they got the chance to talk about a new one being formed.

Last Friday, when Kawhi Leonard’s people leaked that he wanted out of San Antonio (without telling the Spurs first face-to-face, something that still has not happened… real classy), it came with the news his preferred destination was the Lakers. Add that to the fact both LeBron James and Paul George had already been rumored to want to go to Los Angeles and… suddenly the NBA speculation machine was in high gear. People could envision another threat in the West to the Warriors.

The rumors started flying. This is why Magic Johnson was given the reins of Lakers’ basketball, to bring back the days where Lakers’ exceptionalism seemed justified, and if he can pull off getting these three he could bring back the glory days with this one swoop.

Can the Lakers pull this off?

Technically, yes. In fact, you can be sure that people from teams LeBron/Leonard/George are at least discussing how to make it work (through back channels, of course, there is never any tampering in the NBA…).

Is it likely? No. But in a world where Mexico can beat Germany in the World Cup anything is possible. Just don’t bet the rent money on the Lakers here, this is a longshot.

• How the Lakers can pull it off

The Lakers put themselves in position to land two max contract superstars this season with just minimal moves (waiving and stretching Luol Deng and the $36.8 million he is owed over the next two years is a big part of that). That flexibility can be put to use to bring the three stars together.

First, the Lakers trade for Leonard, sending the Spurs some combination of Brandon Ingram/Lonzo Ball/Kyle Kuzma plus some picks and Deng and his contract. I have heard from sources (and others have reported) the Spurs are not particularly interested in Ball as part of this deal, and as a rebuilding team they would not want Deng either. Ingram, Kuzma, Deng and picks (maybe this year’s No. 25, more likely future picks) can work for Leonard and Bryn Forbes. That’s not likely to go down before this Thursday’s Draft, however.

More likely this trade would ultimately involve a third team that would take on Deng (probably and Ball) and send some players/picks back to the Spurs that they find more interesting. There are scenarios where this works out.

Bottom line: The Lakers have the assets and cap space to pull this off — it will gut the roster and leave the Lakers trying to fill out the team around their stars with the taxpayer midlevel ($4.4 million) and minimum contracts, but we know LeBron James can attract veterans to chase a ring with him for less.

What’s more, expect the Lakers to go all in on this — this will not be a half measure. They will exhaust their efforts to see this come about.

• The Biggest Roadblock: The San Antonio Spurs

For this to work, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have to play along.

That could happen, but first the Kawhi Leonard is going to have to sit down across from Popovich and say he wants out. That hasn’t happened, it has just been through social media. (The Spurs think the people around Leonard are trying to get him to a bigger market for branding reasons, that this isn’t fully driven by Leonard himself.) Until it does, the Spurs are still not listening to trade offers.

Also, there are reports that it’s not the Spurs preference to play ball with the Lakers, which is also what I have heard around the league. All things being equal, San Antonio would rather send Leonard to the East, not a team in the West with the resources of the Lakers. Ultimately, however, the Spurs are going to take the trade offer that’s best for them, and if they perceive that to be the Lakers, then they will do it.

(Note: Some Lakers fans seem convinced Spurs have no leverage here, that if Leonard says he will only re-sign with the Lakers that’s the only place they can trade him. Not true. Most importantly, the Spurs care only about the return on the trade not what happens after. Leonard’s threat will scare off some teams that shouldn’t put that many assets into a deal — Sacramento’s rumored interest is a perfect example — but it’s not going to scare off Boston, Philadelphia, or a handful of others who are convinced they could win Leonard over within that first year. They will make the same bet OKC did on George, that they can win him over with their culture/coach/fans/winning, plus he would be able to get $49 million more guaranteed if he re-signed.)

The Spurs will get multiple trade offers. The Lakers offer likely looks something like discussed above: Ingram, Kuzma, picks, and Deng (very possibly with a third team in the mix to take on Deng and other assets the Spurs don’t want, but that team will need a sweetener, too).

Boston’s offer is rumored to be along the lines of Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris (for salary reasons), and Sacramento’s first-round pick in 2019 (only No. 1 pick protected). The Celtics and their wealth of assets could alter this trade in other ways: Sub in Jayson Tatum for Brown (that would mean less valuable picks going to the Spurs), plus they have the Grizzlies 2019 pick (top seven protected) and the Clippers 2019 first round pick (lottery protected), plus their own first rounders and a few second rounders. Boston also could re-sign Marcus Smart and move him in the trade. Danny Ainge has options.

Philadelphia will want to get in on this, too: This year’s No. 10 pick, Markelle Fultz, and Robert Covington would work, and they have their own first-round picks in future years to offer. (While fans seem to have given up, some teams believe Fultz could still be developed into what was expected of the former No. 1 pick.) However, after this draft the deal gets harder for the Sixers unless the Spurs love Fultz.

For the Spurs, it may well simply come down to this: How do they internally rate Ingram vs. Brown/Tatum (and picks) vs. Fultz? If they have a strong preference toward one of those players over the others, or the potential of the picks offered, they will lean that direction.

• What if the Spurs decide to take their time?

Right now, the Spurs are still not listening to trade offers, wanting to sit down with Leonard. While ultimately that may not change the situation, the Spurs are not an organization that gets rushed into things they don’t want to do. Reports are (and again, sources have confirmed this to me) that the Spurs are not going to hurry this decision on when and where to trade Leonard. They are willing to drag it out deep into the summer or even into next season if they don’t like the offers presented.

The longer this goes on, the harder it is on the Lakers to pull together this super team.

On July 1, the Oklahoma City Thunder will put a max five-year, $176 million extension on the table in front of Paul George. Reports are he’s leaning toward taking it — or, more likely, taking a shorter, one-plus-one or two-plus-one contract where he is a free agent again in a year or two — but the idea of going to Los Angeles to play with LeBron and Leonard will give him pause on signing that deal. He will wait to see how it shakes out… for a little while. How long is the question?

LeBron is in the same boat. Starting July 1 he will meet with multiple teams and field multiple max offers, from the Lakers and others. He may want to form a three-player super-team in Los Angeles, but would he come to L.A. without Leonard? If the Spurs sit on their hands early in free agency, how does that impact LeBron’s decision making process?

Even the Lakers are on the hook here — other teams are going to come hard at restricted free agent Julius Randle. Los Angeles would like to keep him after Randle’s leap forward on the offensive end last season. Randle can sign an offer with another team on July 6 and the 72-hour clock is on the Lakers — match it and they can’t bring together this big three.

• Other things that could mess the Lakers up

• The biggest is one mentioned before: Paul George agrees to take OKC’s $176 million on July 1 and it’s done. Or, more likely, George agrees to a shorter deal where he can hit the market (and head to the Lakers or wherever then). George may want to give it a run with the Thunder, and if that doesn’t work consider his options again. If that happens, the Lakers could scramble to try to find another max player to bring in (Chris Paul?) but if PG13 just decides he likes the Thunder and playing with Russell Westbrook, there is nothing Magic Johnson nor LeBron can do about it.

• LeBron James could decide he like’s Chris Paul’s recruitment pitch on Houston and join the Rockets. We’ll know about that one by June 29, the day LeBron has to tell the Cavaliers whether he’s opting into our out of his contract. If he opts in then the trade is worked out in principle (that or he’s staying in Cleveland, but I wouldn’t bet on that one). If LeBron opts out, he’s not going to Houston, it’s just hard to make the math work.

• LeBron decides to stay in the East and signs as a free agent with the Sixers. Philly is going to come hard at him.

Right now, you can be sure that forces are working through back channels to make this new Lakers’ super team happens. Some people want to happen.

But none of those people are in the Spurs organization. Ultimately, they hold the cards on this. And if they don’t want to deal those cards, LeBron, Paul George, and the Lakers will have to find a game elsewhere.

Warriors planned defense around LeBron James’ isolations

1 Comment

During Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, Tyronn Lue repeatedly ran early, high pick-and-roll sets for LeBron James in order to force switches. This allowed James to then back out with the ball and attack against the likes of Al Horford and Terry Rozier instead of Marcus Morris, while also creating mismatches the rest of the Boston roster wasn’t ready for.

This plan worked like a charm — especially in crunch time — and during the last two matchups against the Celtics James scored a whopping 81 points. It helped push the Cavaliers to their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance against the Warriors. At the same time, this strategy gave Golden State oodles of game film to study and learn from Boston’s mistakes.

As Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals got underway on Thursday, the Warriors did much of what we saw them do in the last round against the Houston Rockets, who created quite a few mismatches through switches themselves. As James dribbled on the pick-and-roll to get players like Stephen Curry or Kevon Looney switched on to him, the Warriors held and pinched.

It was an ingenius wrinkle we saw Steve Kerr add halfway through the Rockets series, and they employed it again against LeBron on Thursday.

When Cleveland ran a guard across James’ man, Golden State’s guards made themselves skinny, offering little resistance. Warriors guards tried to make way for James’ defender to recover, while at the same time LeBron’s original defender employed a holding tactic, allowing the guard defender to slide through.

James, now without much room to spare, decided to play the role of the bully in the second half. As his original defender recovered or as help slid over on drives, LeBron pushed his way to the rim. He was particularly effective during the second quarter, when he made four of his five field goals from inside or directly near the painted area.

As much as we like to act as though James is superhuman, he could not spend the entire game bulldozing defenders out of the way. LeBron shot more from outside in the third quarter, and Golden State pounced. The Warriors, even when they did fully switch smaller or less appealable players onto LeBron, stayed alert of the shot clock, and several times caused havoc in Cleveland’s passing lanes with simple digs as Cavaliers players stood and watched.

Golden State played excellent help defense once LeBron took a step inside the 3-point line. The Warriors called out their switches swiftly and quickly, clearly executing a plan for when things broke down and James was barreling toward the paint. As a team, the Cavaliers shot just 27% from 3-point range, and players like Kevin Love and JR Smith were not valuable as corner shooters.

On switches, Golden State’s plan was to sell out on every Cavaliers shooter outside of LeBron at the 3-point line, making them shoot inside the arc. The result was several good switches, even from bench players, of which the Warriors used seven.

In this play above, after LeBron forced the switch on JaVale McGee, Draymond Green rushed to help from Love in the corner. McGee knew immediately to run toward Love in the corner on the switch, fully giving responsibility for LeBron to Green. The result was an excellent closeout by McGee, a missed 3-pointer for the Cavaliers, and a change of possession in favor of Golden State.

Cleveland played about as well as they could have given the situation, and they might have won if not for a few boneheaded mistakes, like not knowing what the score was at the end of regulation. Lebron scored 51 points to go with eight rebounds and eight assists, although the Cavaliers star racked up five of Cleveland’s 11 turnovers. James was a -13 on the night despite all his scoring, and as a team had just 18 assists compared to Golden States 31.

Defensive strategies change from game-to-game, but it will be interesting to see how the Warriors deploy this kind of defensive squeeze on LeBron in Game 2 and as the series rolls along.

Game 2 is on Sunday at 5:00 PM PST.

LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time

33 Comments

He’s done it again. LeBron James, the King in the East, played 48 minutes en route to his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance after beating the Boston Celtics in Game 7 at TD Garden on Sunday, 87-79.

Bow down to the greatest player of all-time.

Much has been made of LeBron’s place in history as his legacy has began to galvanize toward the end of his career. The conversation has raged on about LeBron vs. Michael Jordan, or Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Preference varies greatly between fans, while some still pick the centrist route and say there’s no simple way to compare across eras. There’s been mathematical attempts to rank the two, and even MJ’s old teammates have said LeBron is a more complete player.

On Sunday, James bounced yet another Eastern Conference Finals opponent, carrying his teammates on his shoulders and playing without All-Star Kevin Love. There was never a doubt for many watching Sunday’s matchup in Massachusetts. Before the final buzzer, LeBron had won 23 straight Eastern Conference playoff series. His determination was absolute, and the cards were always stacked against Boston even given their postseason record at home.

You could sort of just see it coming.

James was the motivating force in the first half for Cleveland, scoring 17 points while no other teammates tallied in double digits. The Cavaliers shot an abysmal 12 percent from beyond the arc, and the Celtics looked like they would be able to control the rest of the game as the crowd at home motivated them forward.

But Cleveland came roaring back in the second half, continuing to put on a defensive show, the kind we would not have expected of them during the regular season. Without Love, the Cavs had to make do with Jeff Green, who turned in a surprising performance. Green scored 19 points, shot 50 percent from the field, and grabbed eight rebounds.

In the face of a strengthening Cavaliers attack, the Celtics seems to retreat. Boston’s final offensive possessions in the fourth quarter were hectic, slow, and unsuccessful. While the Cavaliers tried their hardest during the final eight minutes to get Al Horford switched on to LeBron in isolation sets, the Celtics surprisingly mirrored the same offensive tactics. Instead of playing their regular offense, or running plays to get shooters free, or trying to attack the paint against James (who was in foul trouble) Boston resorted to trying to exploit any mismatches found through Cleveland’s switches.

The result was four field goals inside the 3-point line for LeBron in the fourth quarter, as much as the entire Celtics roster combined.

The play of the game came with 1:04 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers leading by nine. LeBron was out on the break, with Marcus Morris trailing behind him. Morris went to foul LeBron, making no obvious attempts on the ball as he grabbed onto the Cavaliers star’s shoulders. Even with all of his might, Morris couldn’t stop James from scoring while drawing the foul. It was indicative of the entire fourth quarter for the Celtics, who scraped, clutched and grabbed as much as they could but did not have an answer for LeBron.

So here we are, with LeBron having won another Game 7 out in the Eastern Conference as he heads to another Finals. He probably won’t match Jordan’s championship mark. But Jordan didn’t match Russell’s. Or Horry’s. Or Havlichek’s, either.

Instead, we have to rely on what we see in front of our eyes combined with their dominance, weighted for context. Sunday night’s performance should help push LeBron over Jordan, if he wasn’t there already. James is a more complete player, which has always been apparent, and now he’s survived every challenge that’s been thrown at him. Declaring James the best player of all-time did not come because of Sunday’s game. It’s been years in the making, throughout the entirety of his 15-year career. The win over Boston was just an indication of his place in history.

LeBron has gone nuclear with 40+ point performances. He was part of the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history against the Golden State Warriors. He beat the Indiana Pacers all by himself, in the playoffs, just this very season. James has had a career season at age 33, playing 48 minutes in the 100th game of the 2017-18 season. LeBron has willed his way to yet another NBA Finals, with perhaps his worst team since the 2006-07 squad that was swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the season’s final series. To add to the accomplishment, LeBron pushed this Cavaliers squad past a stunningly good team in the Celtics, on the road, and without Love.

James is the greatest American sports story of our generation, and he’s the best player the NBA has ever seen. If you disagree, that’s OK. But after Sunday night, you’d be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.