Rajon Rondo

Darren Collison says talk of him playing for Lakers was ‘overhyped’

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Darren Collison shocked the NBA last summer when he walked away from the game at age 32 — and a likely contract in the four-year, $70+ million range — and retired. His reasons were legitimate, he wanted to focus on his religion — “While I still love basketball, I know there is something more important, which is my family and my faith,” Collison said at the time — but the league has seen a lot of players say they were walking away for good reasons only to come running back.

The rumors about a Collison return started just after January 1 and spun out of control in Los Angeles when he sat with Lakers’ owner Jeanie Buss at a game.

Collison stayed retired, and told the “Minute til 6” podcast it wasn’t even close. He was never coming back.

“To keep it 100, they overhyped the whole thing. Like, I wasn’t even thinking about coming back.”

That game he went to? He just came to watch his friend Russell Westbrook.

“I just wanted to come watch the game as a fan.”

Collison also is smart enough to know how him sitting with Buss would be perceived.

Collison was wanted. The Lakers run LeBron James at the point but could have used the veteran Collison in the role Rajon Rondo filled as a secondary playmaker (Rondo is currently out with a thumb injury). Collison was rumored to the Clippers as well, and Doc Rivers can always find a way to use more guard depth.

Collison, however, seems at peace with his decision. If he wanted to return, he would have done it last summer for 10 figures a season, not for the minimum in January.

Bring on the games! Seven predictions for NBA restart

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Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go and the NBA is back! Finally.

The players from the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans will kneel around the Black Lives Matters phrase on the court then tip-off the restarted NBA season, maybe with Zion Williamson playing, maybe not. After that appetizer comes the main course, the Lakers vs. Clippers.

You’ve got questions about the return of the NBA season, and we’ve got answers. Or at least predictions. Here are Dan Feldman and my predictions for the restart of the NBA season.

1) WHAT TEAM MAKES A SURPRISING PLAYOFF RUN?

Kurt Helin: Give me the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was a team that was 33-13 from Dec. 1 on with a top-10 offense and defense, before the coronavirus sent the league into hibernation. Chris Paul has been arguably the most clutch player in the league this season, and the three-guard lineup with CP3, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder has been a problem for opponents. I think they advance to the second round, regardless of opponent, and they can push the Los Angeles teams. (Honorable mention to Dallas in this category.)

Dan Feldman: Nobody. I’m picking mostly chalk. But I like the Rockets as a dark horse. They have top talent in James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and supporting players like Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker fit so well. Houston’s small-ball system invites variance, which could lead to upsets.

2) WHAT TEAM IS THE BIGGEST THREAT TO THE BUCKS IN THE EAST?

Kurt Helin: I like playoff teams that have versatility, so I will take the Boston Celtics. Their combination of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward — with Marcus Smart off the bench — makes them a matchup nightmare on offense and a switchable defense. With Kemba Walker at the point (if his left knee doesn’t hold him back) and Brad Stevens drawing up the plays, the Celtics just need good play out of the center position to be a real challenge for the Bucks. That said, they may need Milwaukee to stumble to beat them.

Dan Feldman: Raptors. The Raptors, Celtics, 76ers and Heat all have a chance. Philadelphia has the highest upside – a roster designed not only for the playoffs, but specifically to match up with Milwaukee. Still, I’ll take Toronto, which can also match up with the Bucks but has played at a much higher level throughout the season.

3) WHICH PLAYER NOT IN THE BUBBLE WILL BE THE BIGGEST BLOW TO THEIR TEAM?

Kurt Helin: Avery Bradley of the Lakers. So long as Los Angeles has LeBron James and Anthony Davis, they are title contenders (and Davis is expected to play in the opener after suffering an eye injury). But losing a versatile starting two guard hurts. There are matchups where Bradley may not have played extensive minutes, but against teams with elite wings (the Clippers or Rockets, for example), his defense, three-point shooting, and veteran presence would have helped. Throw in the loss of Rajon Rondo (thumb) and that’s 44 minutes a game of guard rotation that has to be filled.

Dan Feldman: Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic. Though better players will miss the rest of the season, they’re on lesser teams. Bogdanovic was superb for Utah before undergoing season-ending surgery. With him, the Jazz were a fringe championship contender. Without him, they’ll likely lose in the first round. The difference is especially stark considering Donovan Mitchell‘s and Rudy Gobert‘s rift. Winning cures most ills, and losing tends to exacerbate problems.

4) WHICH TEAM IS MOST LIKELY TO GO 0-8?

Kurt Helin: The Washington Wizards. No John Wall, no Bradley Beal, no Davis Bertans. Outside of that, how many Wizards players can you name? This is a 24-40 team without its two best players and questionable motivation to push and stay in the bubble. Don’t be surprised if things fall apart fast for Washington.

Dan Feldman: Suns. I project Phoenix to play at a higher level the rest of the season than the Nets, Wizards and Spurs. The Suns will probably beat Washington in their first seeding game and render this moot. But if not, they have a tough schedule that ends with teams (Thunder, 76ers, Mavericks) likely to be still competing for seeding position. Phoenix could also fall from playoff contention quickly, reducing motivation to compete.

5) WHICH TEAM GETS THE EIGHTH SEED IN THE WEST?

Kurt Helin: The Memphis Grizzlies. Two reasons for this. First, Ja Morant is really good at basketball. Second, the NBA gave advantages to the Grizzlies at the restart — advantages Memphis earned in the first 65 games playing its way into the eighth seed. They have a 3.5 game cushion, outside of a total collapse the Grizzlies will be in a two-game play-in series to make the playoffs. Then Memphis just needs to win one of those two games to advance. Portland and New Orleans have a shot, but Memphis is the favorite to get that spot.

Dan Feldman: Grizzlies. This is math more than confidence in Memphis, though both obviously factor. Up 3.5 games on the chasing pack, the Grizzlies are the most likely team in the race* to clinch a playoff spot in seeding games. The Grizzlies are the most likely team to be involved in a play-in. The Grizzlies are most likely to be in eighth place in a play-in, which would mean needing to win only once before the ninth-place team wins twice. The Trail Blazers and/or Pelicans might play at a higher level than Memphis the rest of the way, but the Grizzlies’ record advantage makes them the safe pick.

*The Mavericks haven’t technically clinched a playoff spot yet. But I don’t consider them in the race. They’re practically a lock.

6) WHO WILL BE THE MVP OF THE BUBBLE?

Kurt Helin: Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers. He showed last season for Toronto that, when healthy and focused, he can raise his game to the highest level of any current player and lead a good team around him to a ring. He is trying to replicate that formula with Los Angeles. Leonard is fully rested and ready to go, and a Clippers team around him that was knicked up is healthy as well. LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo both have a real shot at earning this title as well.

Dan Feldman: Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all fine choices. But how could Leonard not get the benefit of the doubt after last year’s championship run with the Raptors? Leonard absolutely can deliver in the biggest moments. He looks even better this season – getting closer to his peak lockdown defense and improving as a passer.

7) WHAT IS YOUR NBA FINALS MATCHUP? WHO WILL BE CROWNED CHAMPION?

Kurt Helin: I’ll take Leonard and his Clippers over the Bucks. If any of the Lakers, Bucks, or Clippers won the title it would not be a surprise — they are all incredibly close — but come the playoffs the teams that win have great versatility and strong play on the wings. That’s the Clippers. They can beat a team playing small or playing big, and the Leonard and Paul George pairing is the best wing combo in the league. The only question for the Clippers is getting everyone healthy and in Orlando, and building enough chemistry.

Dan Feldman: Clippers over Bucks. The Lakers are right in the mix, too. But the Clippers get the edge because their stars (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George) outshine Milwaukee’s (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton), and their depth/versatility bests the Lakers’ depth/versatility around LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Six players to watch during NBA’s restart

Alex Caruso
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NBA teams recognize that bench strength will likely be more of a factor than usual during this pandemic-delayed title chase in which a positive coronavirus test could sideline an elite player at any moment.

“Depth is going to be at a premium for everyone,” New Orleans Pelicans general manager David Griffin said.

The good news for teams is that league officials said last week that 346 players had been tested on the NBA campus since the last coronavirus results were announced July 13, with no positives. But the reality they also recognize is how a positive test could impact a team’s roster.

Notable players to test positive for the coronavirus before teams left for Disney’s Wide World of Sports include Houston’s Russell Westbrook, Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes and Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe, though all of them have since cleared protocols to return to Florida. Washington’s Bradley Beal heads the list of players who have opted out of participating in the restart.

The Brooklyn Nets won’t have Wilson Chandler, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince for the restart and already were without injured stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

And that doesn’t even account for basketball-related setbacks such as the foot injury Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley sustained in practice to knock him out of the restart.

Because of the more than four-month break between regular-season games, teams are likely to give their starters limited minutes, particularly in the early going.

The increased risk of losing players for an extended period at any time also will require teams to prepare backup plans.

“If you’ve been in the league a long time, you’ve had to deal with one injury, two injuries, three injuries, and the timing of it can be not the best,” Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “You have to find a way to continue to persevere ad work and get better and find ways to advance if it’s the playoffs. We’re in a bubble. It’s unique. It’s different. But there are things that all of us have had to deal with if you’ve been in long playoff runs for a long time.”

Here’s a look at some players who might not be on fans’ radars but could play bigger roles during the restart:

Troy Brown Jr., WASHINGTON WIZARDS

Brown already was averaging 24.9 minutes before the hiatus, but he could turn into even more of a featured performer during the restart with the Wizards missing Beal and Davis Bertans. The 6-foot-6 forward from Oregon has 9.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.

Alex Caruso, LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Notes: Caruso was averaging 5.4 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 17.8 minutes when the hiatus began. With Avery Bradley opting out of the restart and Rajon Rondo breaking his thumb in practice this month, the 6-foot-5 Caruso should have a greater role in the Lakers’ bench during the restart. The Lakers announced July 13 that Rondo would miss six to eight weeks.

LU DORT, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

The rookie from Arizona State has thrived this season with 6.2 points and 1.9 rebounds per game. Oklahoma City has a 16-5 record in games that Dort has started. Although the potential return of Andre Roberson from a ruptured patellar tendon that has kept him out 2 + years could complicate Dort’s situation, Dennis Schroder expects to leave the bubble temporarily at some point with his wife due to give birth. Dort figures to get more minutes in Schroder’s absence.

George Hill, MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Hill was shooting 48% from 3-point range – well above his career average of 38.5% and light years better than his 2018-19 average of 28% – before the stoppage in play. The 34-year-old guard as well as teammate Donte DiVincenzo could be even bigger factors in the early part of the restart since Bucks teammates Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton have tested positive for coronavirus, though both are now in Florida.

Tyler Johnson, BROOKLYN NETS

Although he just signed with the Nets a month ago, Johnson could have a featured role because of all the players his new team is missing. The 6-foot-4 guard had played in 31 games for Phoenix this season and averaged 5.7 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 16.6 minutes before getting waived in February. He posted double-figure scoring averages three straight seasons from 2016-17 to 2018-19.

Gary Trent Jr., PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Trent showed flashes of his potential in the month prior to the pandemic, as he scored 22 against Miami on Feb. 9, 20 against Indiana on Feb. 27 and 24 against Orlando on March 2. The 6-5 guard has averaged 7.7 points and 20 minutes but likely will get more playing time now that teammate Trevor Ariza has opted out of the restart.

Lakers’ Rajon Rondo fractures thumb, out 6-8 weeks

Rajon Rondo injury
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The Lakers guard depth is getting hit hard. First, Avery Bradley chose to stay home from the NBA restart in Orlando for family reasons. Now this:

Rajon Rondo fractured his thumb during practice on Saturday and will need surgery that will sideline him 6-8 weeks, the team announced.

On the optimistic side, that timeline should have Rondo back for most or all of the conference finals and NBA Finals. Rondo has a history of hand injuries.

The Lakers cannot sign a substitute player to replace Rondo (that is only for players with COVID-19 related absences, or who opted out, but not injuries).

Rondo came off the bench for the Lakers this season, averaging 7.1 points and five assists a game. More importantly, he was the guy running the offense when LeBron James was off the court, something that will be difficult to replace. He is not the defender and player he once was, but he fit with the Lakers.

Alex Caruso and Quinn Cook will get some extra run, plus it opens up room for veterans Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith.

The Rondo injury is not going to put the Lakers in danger in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but if he is not back and 100% in the conference finals (very possibly against a deep Clippers team) and the Finals, this will be a blow to L.A.

Report: Lakers to sign J.R. Smith

J.R. Smith at Lakers game
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The lasting memory of J.R. Smith in the NBA: Forgetting the score in the NBA Finals.

He’ll have a chance to change the narrative.

The shooting guard is set to reunite with former Cavaliers teammate LeBron James on the Lakers, who won’t have Avery Bradley for the NBA’s resumption at Disney World.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Smith will turn 35 during the scheduled playoffs. He hasn’t played well in four years.

I wouldn’t expect much.

But Smith has chemistry with LeBron, who excels at attracting attention and dishing to 3-point shooters like Smith. On a good team, Smith won’t face the issues that doomed his finish in Cleveland.

Smith will likely fall behind Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo in Los Angeles’ perimeter rotation. Though Smith might get spot minutes, the Lakers will definitely miss Bradley’s feisty defense. Smith isn’t duplicating that.

Also: Smith, Dion Waiters, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee now all play for the same team. Nay, the same championship contender.