The Los Angeles Lakers are nearly through yet another disappointing season, and now have 61 wins combined over the past three years — just slightly ahead of the Golden Warriors’ win-count for the current campaign.
The Lakers’ primary hope for a quick turnaround is luring a pair of top free agents this summer — with the biggest prize of all being Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star forward Kevin Durant.
The challenge for the Lakers will be convincing Durant to leave a contending team to join a squad heading for a third straight lottery appearance.
That’s a hurdle the Lakers may not be able to overcome.
Two Max Slots
The NBA’s national television deal will push the salary cap to at least $90 million next season, up from the current year’s $70 million. The spike in league income could enable over 20 teams to have at least one max slot for a free agent like Durant.
To the Lakers’ favor, they are on the short list of four or five teams with room for two mid-tier, maximum-salaried players.
Durant is in the second max tier for veterans with seven to nine years of experience. His starting salary will jump from the $20 million he’s earning from the Thunder this season, to approximately $26 million.
The Lakers would be in position to pay Durant, and still have at least $30 million to spend.
The top available players could include LeBron James (player option), Al Horford, DeMar DeRozan (player option), Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond (restricted), Bradley Beal (restricted), Nicolas Batum, Mike Conley, Harrison Barnes (restricted) and Ryan Anderson, among others.
James will presumably return to the Cleveland Cavaliers (although nothing in the NBA is a true lock). Restricted free agents are difficult to acquire, given their current teams have the right of first refusal.
Contracts for lower-tier max players like Whiteside, Barnes, Beal and Drummond can start as high as roughly $21 million. James is in the highest range, starting at near $30 million, but most prime free agents are in the same middle bracket as Durant.
While the city of Los Angeles and the Lakers’ voluminous, international fanbase are assets, the franchise has not been successful in landing high-level free agents in recent years like LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe, Carmelo Anthony and James.
Ultimately the timing just wasn’t right, with Kobe Bryant at the tail end of his career and the Lakers’ youth movement still in its infancy.
The Lakers do have an emerging core of players, featuring guards D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, and forwards Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown, but they are all just beginning to establish themselves in the NBA.
The team may also have the chance to add another high-level, young prospect in June’s 2016 NBA Draft, with LSU’s Ben Simmons or Duke’s Brandon Ingram as the early consensus top two picks.
The first challenge for the Lakers will be to get through May’s draft lottery to keep their selection. They currently have 55.8 percent odds at a top-three pick, as the second-worst overall team in the league. If the lottery balls drop the Lakers to fourth or below, their selection will be conveyed to the Philadelphia 76ers to close out the ill-fated Steve Nash trade.
It’s presumptive to assume Durant would jump ship for the Lakers, even if they signed an All-Star center like Horford, to join Simmons, Russell, Randle and Clarkson, etc.
Durant will be 28 years old before next season, and may be too impatient to bank on the Lakers’ core maturing ahead of schedule.
Trade the Kids?
If the Lakers are truly driven to land Durant, they may be better served to package some of their young players, and possibly the 2016 pick (after the draft), for a high-level veteran.
Guessing the trade market is far trickier than looking at a list of known free agents.
Targets like DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento Kings), Jimmy Butler (Chicago Bulls), Jeff Teague (Atlanta Hawks) or Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks) in June could make the Lakers more appealing to free agents in July.
For example, if the Lakers were able to move veterans Lou Williams and Nick Young, along with Randle and their 2016 first-round pick to Sacramento for Cousins, the Lakers would still have almost $60 million in spending power to build around Cousins, Russell, Nance, Brown and Clarkson (a restricted free agent with a $2.7 million cap hold).
Durant would give the Lakers more serious consideration, provided the team already had an All-Star like Cousins in the fold — although guessing in March what he chooses in July is foolhardy.
As recently detailed by Basketball Insiders’ Tommy Beer, Durant has incentive to sign a two-year contract this season, with an opt out in the second year (often called a one-plus-one).
The NBA’s salary cap is expected to make yet another jump in 2017, exactly when Durant reaches 10 years of NBA experience.
If Durant signs a long-term deal this summer, he’ll earn in the $27-28 million range in 2017-18. Opting out of a one-plus one, Durant would be eligible to sign a deal starting at roughly $36 million.
Durant may like the idea of locking in a secure multi-year contract, but the economics suggest a one-plus-one is the way to go.
Doing so in Oklahoma City would give the Russell Westbrook/Serge Ibaka/Durant core one last run before all three hit free agency in 2017.
Durant could also choose to take a one-plus-one with another team, but that franchise would need about $36 million in cap space, limiting spending power, even with a second-straight salary cap spike.
What specifically drives Durant’s decision remains to be seen. He may prefer to lock in long-term money.
Additionally, the NBA and the NBA Players Union can both opt out the current Collective Bargaining Agreement before the 2017-18 season. Any projections beyond next season assumes a new deal is reached with similar terms, which may not be the case.
Does Byron Scott Help Land Durant?
Scott has coached the Lakers to obscurity through his tenure with the Lakers. He hasn’t had a viable roster with a massive spate of injuries through his first year, and this season’s group is largely inexperienced — while Bryant is clearly a diminished player as he goes through his NBA farewell tour.
How much Scott has helped or hindered in the development of Russell, Clarkson and Randle may prove immaterial, if the right coach helps recruit top talent. Former Thunder coach Scott Brooks has an established relationship with Durant. The Lakers need to consider Brooks as a possible draw. Scott has one more season on his contract, but the Lakers were willing to get out of their deals with Mike D’Antoni and Mike Brown early.
If Brooks is the path to Durant, then the team needs to move on from Scott, despite his long relationship with the team-owning Buss family.
Wait Until 2017?
Durant is the closest available player in star power to the retiring Bryant. No other free agent is close, unless James decides to abandon Cleveland for a second time.
If Durant choses to stay with Oklahoma City on a one-plus-one, the Lakers may spend conservatively enough to maintain roughly $36 million in space for the summer of 2017.
At that point, the list of stars grows to include the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, along with Westbrook and possibly Durant.
Instead, in the absence of Durant, the Lakers may choose to pursue players like DeRozan and Whiteside.
Competition will be tough this summer. The Lakers hold some advantages but they may not be enough for the franchise to make a great leap forward.
NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins
Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.
Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.
By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.
Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.
On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.
Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.
Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?
That may be pricisely the case here.
Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.
We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.
For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.
In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.
Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.
That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.
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With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.
The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.
At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.
In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.
Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.
Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.
Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.
And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.
NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams
This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.
This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.
As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.
With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.
Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.
Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.
With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.
However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?
Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.
Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.
In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.
So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.
However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.
Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.
At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.
Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.
For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.
On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.
With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.
Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.
Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.
Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success
The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.
The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.
The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.
Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.
He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”
It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.
Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”
The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.
This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”
Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.
While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”
Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.
For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.
“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”
These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.
This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.
“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”