“A 20-year chapter has come to a close,” Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak on Friday, as the franchise wrapped exit meetings at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo. “It is hard to close the book on this chapter, but it has come to that point.”
All-Star guard Kobe Bryant finished his career on Wednesday with a remarkable 60-point outburst. Now, the Lakers are charged with replacing one of the greatest basketball players in NBA history.
Returning to form will be a challenge for the Lakers after a franchise-worst 17-win season – four worse than last year’s 21-win debacle.
The good news for the Lakers is that they have tremendous cap flexibility and a number of young prospects who could help the team turn around what has been an unprecedented (for the Lakers) three-straight seasons without a playoff berth.
After managing just 38 wins over two seasons, does head coach Byron Scott deserve a return? To date, the team has not made a decision.
“Byron and the staff are under contract,” Kupchak said. “[We’ll] take a couple of days. That could be three or four days or a week, let things settle down a little bit, and meet.”
Scott has two years left on his deal, but the second is a team option.
Throughout the 2014-15 season, the Lakers suffered through more injuries than any team in the league and only had Bryant for 35 games. This past year, the team was healthy, but lacking in mature talent.
“I think Byron has done an excellent job under the circumstances he has had to deal with the last two years,” Kupchak said, citing Bryant’s inconsistent status in the lineup and the youthful, inexperienced roster.
Kupchak acknowledged that the game has changed over time. Scott has an older-school style. Does that mesh with today’s young player?
“More so this year; I think last year, was more of an adjustment period,” Kupchak said. “He’s much more open to everything that’s available to coaches, including analytics.”
How much of a positive (or negative) impact did Scott have on youthful players like D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson? That remains to be seen.
“We have to wait a couple of years to see; you’re not going to get results in a month or three or four with players who are 19 and 20 and 21,” Kupchak said. “You have to provide the structure, and it’s going to take some time. We’ll know in two or three years how effective Byron was as a parent to the young guys on this team.”
How long can the Lakers be patient with rebuilding? How long can they be patient with Scott?
“I know he’s hoping that he coaches here forever, but a lot of times what we do is we’re really doing is preparing for the next GM or the next coach, and that’s tough sometimes,” Kupchak said.
The Lakers would be better off parting ways with Scott, looking instead at free agent coaches like Scott Brooks or Tom Thibodeau. Brooks, in particular, should be the replacement.
Brooks, according to people close to the 2010 NBA Coach of the Year, has interest in a position with the Lakers should it become available. A number of teams are expected to pursue Kevin Durant’s former coach (and Durant himself), including the Washington Wizards.
The Oklahoma City All-Star will be a free agent this July; teammate Russell Westbrook will be available in 2017. If Brooks gives the Lakers an edge at landing either All-Star, or both, that’s the move to make.
There’s no move the Lakers can make to win the May 17 NBA Draft Lottery, other than hope their 55.8 percent chance comes through. The team would be well served with the top overall pick (19.9 percent odds) or second selection (18.8 percent), whereas the third slot is the consolation prize (17.1 percent).
Duke’s Brandon Ingram or LSU’s Ben Simmons are widely expected to be the top two picks, in some order. The gap at three is sizable, but others like Dragan Bender (whom Kupchak scouted recently in Israel with Maccabi Tel Aviv), California’s Jaylen Brown, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Providence’s Kris Dunn are viable options among others.
The value in the pick is not just the player, but trade opportunities that may arise too.
“If you get a top-three pick … not only does it get you the ability to take a player that is considered top-three in the world, you have the ability to move the pick,” Kupchak said. “I think there are some quality players that can be starters or All-Stars in this league, [and] that goes beyond two players.”
If the Lakers’ selection drops to four or five, their pick will go to the Philadelphia 76ers as a result of the ill-fated Steve Nash trade. Losing the pick could add another $3-5 million in cap space for the team.
Over time, the Lakers have built an interesting young core. Randle was taken seventh in 2014 and acquired Clarkson via trade with the Washington Wizards the same year at 45th. Last June, the Lakers added on Russell (second overall), Larry Nance Jr. (27th) and Anthony Brown (34th).
The development for each has gone in fits and starts.
“Overall, in this league, the toughest thing for young players that are drafted high, or drafted in the first round, is getting playing time,” Kupchak said. “A lot of rookies over the years have a hard time getting on the court, and what that does is slows their development and really puts that team in a tough spot.”
Could that be an argument for passing on another first rounder?
The positive of adding on a forward like Ingram or Simmons to the team’s young core is that the Lakers could be bringing in a franchise player. The downside is that it may take a few years for that group to develop.
“We’ve never had this many young players on the team at the same time. There’s a price to pay for that,” said Kupchak, noting the team’s poor record.
Finding a high-impact player remains paramount, and the draft may be the best way for the Lakers to do so.
“The only way to move on after a player [like Bryant] has played 20 years is to hope that you can get some young players to build around. Unless you draft a young player, you cannot get a young player,” Kupchak said. “You can get free agents, but typically they are players that have been drafted in the first round, have gone through four years of a contract and then have probably signed an extension for another four years. Those players are going to be in their mid-to-late twenties, if they’re available.
“As much as we’d like to build through the draft with young players, that could take 10 to 15 years and we don’t feel like we have that kind of timeline in Los Angeles. So our approach has been to build through the draft, be aggressive in free agency and, if you have the assets, then you have the ability to make trades.”
If the Lakers do keep their pick, they should look to make a trade. Yes, Simmons or Ingram may be special, but if the Lakers want to land top free agents this summer, they will need more of a lure than the potential of youth.
Players like Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler and Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins may become available via trade.
The 2016 first-rounder may not be enough to lure either. Other teams would certainly make competing bids. If the Lakers are fully committed to rising quickly back into contention, then they need to get out of the business of developing young players.
The pick plus one of Russell or Randle might be needed to foster a deal. This may seem like a heavy price, but an All-Star in the Lakers’ pocket in June may be a greater draw to a player like Durant in July.
Go Star Shopping
The NBA’s salary cap projects to jump to $92 million for the 2016-17 season, giving the Lakers roughly $60 million (enough space for two maximum-salaried players). Most teams will have room for one, but the Lakers do have that advantage.
“We had cap room last summer, but we’ll have almost triple of what we had,” Kupchak said. “That doesn’t mean we’ll use it all. We’ll have to recruit effectively. We may only use what we feel is prudent, but we feel like we’re in a much better situation.”
The past couple of summers, the Lakers have not been able to lure their top free agent targets like LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
“We do feel this year, we have more assets on our team than we did last year,” said Kupchak, noting the uncertain status of Bryant and Randle’s broken leg that knocked him out on opening night in 2014. “If you were a max player a year ago, you’re looking at our team and saying, ‘They’ve got the number two pick [Russell], they’ve got Julius Randle who played one game and you’ve got Kobe Bryant who rarely played is going into his last year probably. That’s not an attractive situation.’
“This summer, we can get at least two max players – or you could get a max player and two or three other veteran. So you could get multiple players, whether they talk amongst themselves or whether we figure out who wants to play with who beginning on July 1.”
The Lakers will still have to pitch, but they hope their recent infusion of talent improves their odds.
“We are selling the city, the franchise and our fan base to potential free agents. That’s what we sell,” Kupchak said. “In the last two years, we would try to sell and advertise our best assets that continue to be playing for the franchise, the organization, the city of Los Angeles, our fan base, business opportunities, connections that you might make here that you might not make in another city [and] lifestyle. A summer ago, with the exception of Kobe, that’s all we had to sell.”
Will the Lakers be pitching a top-three pick, presuming they win the lottery, along with Russell, Randle, Nance and Clarkson? Or will they make a bolder move and find a deal for a player like Butler or Cousins?
Regardless, the top targets should be Durant and James. Will either leave their existing teams? Durant has incentive to re-sign with the Thunder for one more season to maximize his earnings in 2017 when the cap will jump another $15 million. James, who is likely to decline his player option, would certainly face a sizable backlash if he left the Cavaliers again. Regardless, the Lakers are undoubtedly rooting for the Dallas Mavericks and Detroit Pistons in their first-round matchups against Oklahoma and Cleveland, respectively.
Both are long-shots, even if both James and Durant are sponsored by Nike. Bryant, who is one of Nike’s biggest stars, is leaving a sizable vacuum in the Los Angeles market. Both Los Angeles Clippers stars, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, are on Jordan Brand – affiliated with Nike, but without their own Nike flagship brands.
While there may be pressure from Durant and James’ primary sponsorship for a move to Lakers, both players will make the best decisions for themselves – not Nike.
The Lakers will start with the best players available, then move on through the list until they succeed or fail with options like DeMar DeRozan, Hassan Whiteside, Nicolas Batum, Al Horford and others. Restricted free agents are a dim possibility, but only if there’s a compelling reason to believe their existing team won’t match an offer sheet. Restricted players this summer include Harrison Barnes, Bradley Beal and Andre Drummond.
The difficulty of free agency is that the teams have limited power. The players make the decisions.
Re-sign Jordan Clarkson
Clarkson is a restricted free agent. The Lakers have his early Bird rights, which limits how much other teams can offer to just the average salary (under $6 million a year) for his first two seasons, then roughly $23 million apiece for a third and fourth year.
The Lakers are best off if a team does give Clarkson an offer sheet, so they can lock him in cheaply for the next two years. Whether he’s worth $23 million a year, down the road, is irrelevant. The team can always look to trade him at a later date.
If Clarkson doesn’t get an offer sheet, the Lakers can simply re-sign him. Until he’s inked, he’ll take up $2.7 million of the Lakers’ cap room. The most that the Lakers can pay him is $5.6 million in the first year, unless they dip into their space to do so.
Another option is a sign-and-trade, although Clarkson would have to agree to a deal with another team. Because he’s restricted, the possibility is greater than with an unrestricted player – but by no means is it assumed.
Best Case/Worst Case
The Lakers can, mathematically, trade away most of their youth (the potential pick, Randle, Russell, Clarkson, etc.) and veterans (Lou Williams and Nick Young) to try and bring in two players like Butler and Cousins. Not to say it’s likely, but going all in at exactly the right time – some in June, some in July – could change the Lakers’ fortune.
Done perfectly (which all but never happens), the Lakers could maintain cap room for two max signings in addition to a pair of blockbuster trades.
Math says Durant, James, Butler and Cousins is possible, but common sense says it’s not.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Lakers may not even have a first-rounder to trade. Other teams are going to pursue Durant and James, though both probably stay at home.
Cousins and Butler may not even hit the trade market.
If they fail in free agency, the Lakers may end up going after a player instead like Derrick Rose in trade with the Bulls, an expiring $24.5 million salary (accounting for a 15 percent trade bonus), although he doesn’t address a current position of need. The cost may not be high to the Lakers, as Chicago may be looking to dump salary.
Trade or Stretch Swaggy P
Regardless, the Lakers need to move on from Young. His salary may be needed in a trade, but he is due $5.4 million next season with a player option at $5.7 million for 2017-18. That may or may not be an impediment.
“Nick didn’t fit this year,” Kupchak said.
The Lakers can, and should, stretch Young if they can’t deal him, giving the team a cap hit of $2.2 million a season over five years.
Kupchak said it’s an option (although he didn’t specify Young by name).
“All it does it help you with cap room,” Kupchak said. “If you did look to stretch a player … it depends what you would do with that extra $2 million. It may not make sense to do it.”
Avoid Long-Term Mediocrity
“I think our backcourt is better off than our frontcourt, depending on the lottery and where we end up with our pick,” Kupchak said. “I think we do have to address the frontcourt – and if you could put a wing player in the frontcourt, that would be a good thing to do as well.”
As the Lakers’ core is currently constructed, the team has two guards in Russell and Clarkson as well as two forwards in Randle and Nance.
Free agency, the draft and trades could shift that dramatically. In addition to their potential lottery pick, the Lakers also have the 32nd overall pick.
“Our fans have been incredibly understanding and patient,” Kupchak said. “We cannot not show great progress going forward.”
Jim Buss, the team’s vice president of player personnel and a part owner with his siblings, has vowed to step down from his position after next season if the Lakers do not return to contention. It would take major, major movement to jump from a 17-win team to the 50-win mark. Buss’ position in the franchise is anything but secure.
The future for the Lakers could include Phil Jackson, the fiancé of team governor and part owner Jeanie Buss and currently the president of the New York Knicks. He is the odds-on favorite to replace Jim Buss.
But Kupchak was clear that the team won’t make knee-jerk moves this summer to try and force any leap that doesn’t happen organically.
“From where I sit, I’m going to try to encourage the decision-makers to be prudent with the money that we have – not just fill out a roster with players that will give us no flexibility going forward, yet maybe we can win 40 or 42 games for the next five years,” Kupchak said. “That’s never been our goal in this city. I know it’s frustrating for fans, but it’s my goal and I know it’s the organization’s goal to get the team and the organization in the position to do a lot more than that.”
If Buss steps down, Kupchak’s future is unclear, though he may be welcome to stay with Jackson.
Perhaps building through youth is the answer, although given how long it typically takes for young players to win in the NBA, the payoff may come well after Buss is deposed of power.
Outside of serious wins this offseason, fixing the Lakers may be a long-term job that exceeds Buss’ tenure.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.