Even though much of the Los Angeles Lakers’ fanbase appeared to favor a return to the franchise in some form or fashion for Phil Jackson, his ultimate hiring by the New York Knicks had to finally provide a sense of closure. Not that seeing the 13-time champion (11 as a coach, two as a member of the Knicks) casually take his talents back to familiar stomping grounds was the preferred outcome of most, but no longer having Jackson as a viable option at least gives them the ability to finally move on. Whether fans like it or not, the fate of their future still rests in the hands of owner Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak.
The truth is, while certain moves have eventually backfired, as is the case with most front offices if placed under a similar microscope, that duo has been the driving force behind the day-to-day basketball operations for the better part of the past decade. While the late, great Dr. Jerry Buss was obviously around for the final approval on certain larger deals and plans, they are more than capable of putting together the type of competitive roster that might restore some good faith among some of the more invested and dedicated fans the league has. The unprecedented amount of cap space and flexibility the Lakers will have over the next few seasons gives them financial flexibility they haven’t had in quite some time.
For the first time in many years, the Lakers will not only have what could eventually be a top-five lottery pick, but they also have the freedom to essentially press the proverbial “reset” button with 11 of the current players coming up as either free agents or having non-guaranteed contracts for 2014-15. Basically, while there is a certain amount of discomfort with all of the uncertainty and unanswered questions, at least they finally have options.
Before looking to reshape the roster, a choice has to be made regarding the head coaching position and preferred philosophy moving forward. By no means is that intended to be a jab at Mike D’Antoni, who has unfortunately taken the brunt of the anger and outrage from many of the fans. The reality is, while there are definitely some fair questions regarding his flexibility and willingness to adjust at times, this season’s injury-spree had little if anything to do with D’Antoni’s approach.
That said, while no one enjoys speculating about someone’s job, it would be naïve and even irresponsible (as an analyst) not to acknowledge the fact that the “perfect fit” Lakers’ management may have anticipated simply has not come to fruition regardless of the reasons behind it. When you take Kobe Bryant’s eventual return and the fact that rumors of a potential Pau Gasol return at a somewhat discounted rate have begun to surface, the writing may prove to be on the wall for D’Antoni.
Once they’ve made a decision about their preferred basketball identity, June’s NBA Draft is an absolute “can’t miss” situation for this team. Guys like Kansas’ Joel Embiid and Australia’s Dante Exum have made it clear Los Angeles is a place they would consider a good fit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the right selection for this team’s most immediate needs. If D’Antoni were to stay in place, then perhaps Duke’s Jabari Parker would be the right fit. Already a gifted scorer in several ways, Parker is also the type of versatile and interchangeable player D’Antoni loves playing anywhere from power forward to shooting guard.
Although Embiid has shown great potential in somewhat of a surprise freshman season for Kansas, concerns over his health and durability have already started to circulate. Embiid may eventually go on to have a magnificent NBA career at some point, but teams cannot be faulted for wanting to make absolutely certain about his back before mortgaging so much of their future hopes on him.
After nearly a year of being considered a “guaranteed lock” for the No. 1 pick as a high school senior, Andrew Wiggins not only willingly shared the Kansas spotlight during that early season outbreak from Embiid, but also played better than some might realize. Wiggins was still able to not only lead a strong and balanced Kansas scoring attack (17.1 PPG), but also appears to have the makings of an excellent perimeter defender. His upside remains the highest of any prospect at this point. Teams that pass on him with one of the top picks may rue the day when articles are written about this upcoming draft years from now.
Opinions may differ on the ultimate potential of any of these prospects, but the fact remains the Lakers absolutely need a home run with the pick.
Not only are they in serious need of an influx of young talent with star potential, they are currently without any picks in the 2015 draft barring another catastrophic season. Their first-round selection is only top-five protected as a result of the deal that brought Steve Nash in from the Phoenix Suns, while their 2015 second-round pick is owed to the Orlando Magic as a result of the deal that brought Dwight Howard in for a season.
Speaking of Nash, while many automatically presumed the Lakers would utilize the NBA’s ‘stretch’ provision in order to spread his salary out over the upcoming three seasons, there are a growing number of people who believe they might actually hold on to the 40-year-old point guard and permit him to play out his contract so that it is removed from their payroll all at once. Another potential outcome to consider is that Nash will also be an expiring contract next season, and could eventually be an appealing asset to a team looking for 2015 cap relief. Whether the Lakers allow his contract to expire themselves or look to move him in a scenario of that nature, he actually becomes more valuable in his third and final season than he has been for in L.A. at any point prior.
The next decision comes in determining which potential free agency class looks more appealing, 2014 or 2015? While Carmelo Anthony and several other large names could potentially opt-out and look for greener pastures elsewhere this summer, there is a growing amount of concern over whether those players ultimately terminate their contracts and whether this front office currently possesses the ability to “sell” them on playing in Los Angeles.
Acknowledging how crazy that last statement would have sounded just a few years ago, the history and glory of yesteryear appear to have less of an impact with at least a percentage of players these days. Not that Los Angeles is no longer a desirable destination for many, but those remaining are too stubborn to realize there are plenty of viable alternative options for players. They need to take the same ‘long look’ in the mirror at themselves as the Lakers’ front office had to once Howard left for Houston last summer.
Again, the Lakers have been able to pull themselves out of dark times in the past, but it simply hasn’t been and will not be quite as easy at this point given the restrictive nature of the CBA and the current lack of a young star. Of course, they could very well end up finding a way to convince a player of Anthony’s caliber to join them, but his signing would likely all but remove them from the eventual Kevin Love sweepstakes entirely.
That fact alone, regardless of how realistic landing Love may actually be, leads us to think the actual plan is to fully re-stock in the summer of 2015 rather than this upcoming July. Love is eligible to be a free agent after 2014-15, and has expressed a strong desire to compete in the playoffs and ultimately for titles as some of his contemporaries have already done. His productivity, marketability as a fun-loving guy and UCLA ties are why he is seen as tailor-made for the purple and gold.
If Love is still in the plans, the Lakers might find themselves in a bidding war with teams like Golden State or Phoenix for his services. Not that it has been reported either of them are officially interested in the 25-year-old son of former-Laker Stan Love, but those are teams where he would also fit well and they have plenty of assets to offer Minnesota in terms of draft picks and young players.
Kyrie Irving and Rajon Rondo are also guys the Lakers could ultimately be interested in as players to build around for the future. Rondo’s name has been attached to rumors involving the Lakers for years, and it appears Boston may be willing to finally part ways with the four-time All-Star as they continue to re-shape their own roster.
Irving would appear to be a long-shot unless he were to decline the extension Cleveland will undoubtedly offer this summer and play on a qualifying offer, a risky proposition. As much as we like to think things have changed with the modern athlete, some of us still need to see that phenomenon actually take place before we can believe it. Conventional wisdom would say a potential $100 million contract is simply too much to turn down, but in the hypothetical event where the 21-year-old eventually did, Cleveland would then have no choice but to explore the potential market for him. In this event, again, the Lakers would likely have plenty of competition. It’s possible that Irving could sign the extension and then demand a trade from Cleveland in the near future, but it remains to be seen what will happen with Irving and the Cavs.
Crazier things have happened with Kupchak and Buss in the past (e.g. Pau Gasol’s 2008 deal), but a 2015 plan seems more likely as time passes and things continue to develop.
If they were to go in that direction, the current players most likely to be retained could very well be determined by both the existing market for each player and the direction the organization wants to pursue. If D’Antoni were to return, the likelihood of players like Gasol, Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman returning would seemingly decrease. Guys like Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Ryan Kelly or even the recently acquired Kent Bazemore are the types of players that have traditionally excelled in his preferred style.
If they were to go with an approach that required more balance or even a preference toward post play, then the organization could look to retain one or more of those three big men at the right price. Either way, unless offered deals from other teams that would price them out of the Lakers’ range with 2015 and beyond in mind, expect guys like Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Kendall Marshall and perhaps a couple others to return regardless of whether they spend the bulk of their money on a free agent this year.
Most fans of the Lakers don’t want to hear about patience at a time like this, but the reality is now is the exact time when it is most necessary. They didn’t get to this point in one day, and the front office won’t be able to turn things around overnight. It simply doesn’t work that way, and anyone that has been a fan long enough would know just that.
Williams, Clippers Will Keep Pushing Through
The Clippers veteran guard chats with Spencer Davies in a one-on-one Basketball Insiders exclusive.
For the second straight year, Lou Williams started his basketball season as a resident of California.
Despite being moved by the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline back in February, it wasn’t a long stay for the 31-year-old in Houston. After bolstering the Rockets’ bench in a big way during their playoff stretch, the organization dealt the veteran guard to the LA Clippers, meaning he was going right back to the City of Angels.
Which begs the question—did he even relocate from his old place?
“Yeah, I moved,” Williams told Basketball Insiders in Cleveland on Friday. “But I ended up moving back into the same neighborhood that I was in, so it was all good.”
The familiarity with the area must’ve been comforting, but playing for three different teams in such a short amount of time can’t be easy. It’s only been 15 games, but he already notices a discrepancy between the two that share the same arena.
“Obviously when you have different people running it,” Williams answered when asked to compare the Los Angeles franchises. “I think the Lakers were in a different space than the Clippers are. The Clippers are a more veteran group, so two completely different atmospheres.”
Winning four straight games to kick off the 2017-18 campaign, the year started out great for he and his new team, but it’s gone downhill in a hurry.
The Los Angeles Clippers are hurting in every way. Literally.
Only halfway through a five-city road trip, they’ve lost eight consecutive games and 10 of their last 11. Key members of their team are absent and they have been plagued by injuries out of the gate.
First, it was international sensation Milos Teodosic who went down with a foot injury in just the second NBA game of his career. Then there’s Danilo Gallinari, whose ailing hip has kept him out of action for two weeks. To top it all off, Patrick Beverley is dealing with a sore right knee that has forced him to miss over a week as well (he’ll reportedly be active on Monday night).
Without the trio, the Clippers are missing a little bit of everything, and Williams is eager for them to return to the floor because of it.
“It’s three starters,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “One guy’s our heart and soul on the defensive end. We have another guy who was leading us in assists and we have another guy who’s second in scoring.
“Three very important pieces of our team are missing. But we have other guys that’s stepping in doing the best job that they can. We’re just falling short.”
Aside from their most recent 15-point loss to the equally struggling Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center, Los Angeles has competed and been in almost every game during the long skid.
In Cleveland, they led for most of the way until midway through the fourth quarter. It was a back-and-forth affair when the Cavaliers struck back, and once the game went into overtime, the Clippers went cold and ran out of gas.
Taking out the element of overtime, the “close game, but no win” trend has been apparent as they attempt to get over the hump for a victory. Williams sees his team battling. They’re just not getting the outcomes they desire.
“Just continue to push,” Williams said of how LA can climb the wall. “We’ll have a couple of guys back this week from injuries.
“We’ve been playing extremely hard giving ourselves an opportunity to win these games and just haven’t been able to finish. Get guys back, just continue to push. We’ll break through.”
If Williams keeps on producing the way he has, especially as of late, that could be sooner rather than later. Over the last five games, the scoring assassin has put up over 30 points in two of them and 25 in another. In addition, he’s averaged over four rebounds, four assists, and more than a steal per game during the stretch.
When asked about what’s made him so comfortable, he kept it simple.
“Just playing,” Williams told Basketball Insiders.” Taking what the defense gives me and try to make shots. That’s it.”
Williams is special when it comes to how much he can impact a game in the snap of a finger. Over the course of his career, he’s one of those guys that have been able to just go off at any given moment.
“Just continue to play,” he said. “Play [as] hard as I can. I never really think about it until after the game. I just go out there, play [as] hard as I can. Put myself in position to score points and live with the results.”
You can recall Williams being an elite sixth man in this league for just about every team he’s been a part of. Whether it was with the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Lakers, Rockets or even with the Clippers now, he’s constantly been a guy to provide a powerful punch off the bench.
With the consistency and the energy he’s provided with second units throughout his career, it’s rather surprising that Williams has only won the Sixth Man of the Year award one time in his career. Having established this reputation, it should only be a matter of time before he’s rewarded again.
That being said, it’s got to be one of his aspirations, right?
“Not anymore,” Williams told Basketball Insiders, admitting he felt slighted in last year’s race. “Nah. Probably had one of the best seasons of my career and finished third, so I don’t really care no more.”
Furthermore, as one of the top sharpshooters the NBA has to offer, he told Basketball Insiders he doesn’t wouldn’t care to participate in the three-point contest, either.
Moving away from the individual side of things, Williams has enjoyed his time with the Clippers for the short time he’s been a part of the franchise.
One good reason is the opportunity to play under one of the league’s most respected head coaches in Doc Rivers, whom he credits has a unique manner of making adjustments.
“Doc is a high basketball IQ coach,” Williams said. “He knows how to break down the game on the fly, which is impressive. A lot of coaches, they make a lot of corrections at halftime or in film sessions. Doc makes them on the fly, which is great.”
Playing alongside two superstars isn’t so bad. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are a pairing that can dominate each and every time they step on the floor. In fact, having those two alone should be enough for the Clippers to get things turned back around.
When the frontcourt duo clicks on a nightly basis and the team returns to full strength, Williams believes that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
“It’s been fun,” Williams told Basketball Insiders of the experience with Griffin and Jordan. “Obviously, we would like to win some games and I think that tide is gonna turn once we get back healthy.
“But these two All-Star guys in this league that’s done an exceptional job for this organization—so it’s been a good time being with these guys.”
NBA AM: All-Time Biggest Comeback Wins
The Warriors’ big 24-point comeback over the weekend was incredible, but where did it rank all time?
One of the biggest NBA stories of the weekend was the Philadelphia 76ers scoring 47 points against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter Saturday night, only to blow their 24-point lead in fairly embarrassing fashion.
Kevin Durant joked about not being able to lose to Philadelphia for fear for Joel Embiid peacocking on Twitter afterward, while Embiid wrote about taking the loss in stride, adding “blowing a big lead” to their arsenal of experiences to avoid repeating in games to come.
In any event, that 24-point comeback was one of the most impressive comebacks in NBA history, though the good news for the Sixers is that there have been bigger blown leads than their own. Some of them much, much bigger. Heck, the Miami HEAT blew a 25-point lead just two weeks ago, so crazier things have happened.
The following are those crazier things. These are the biggest blown leads in NBA history:
#5 Boston Celtics vs. L.A. Lakers (2008) – By the time Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals had started, the Celtics had taken a 2-1 lead in the series, and the pivotal Game 4 was going to go down in Los Angeles. From the get-go, the Lakers looked like they were going to tie the series with little problem, jumping out to a quick 26-7 lead and finishing the first quarter up by 21 points. The lead got as large as 24 at one point, with L.A. still holding a 20-point lead with six minutes left in the third quarter.
But Boston ripped off a 21-3 run to finish the third quarter, cutting the lead to two and making it a much more exciting game than the first two-and-a-half quarters suggested. Their spirits broken, L.A. lost the game and, eventually, the series.
#4 Utah Jazz vs. Portland Trail Blazers (2010) – The Jazz came into Portland for this February game back in 2010 without starting center Mehmet Okur, whose absence was felt immensely as the Jazz fell into a 25-point deficit, trailing by 23 halfway through the third quarter. After chipping away at that lead throughout the fourth quarter, Utah still faced a four-point hole with just 30 seconds to go in the game, but Deron Williams made a couple of free throws, the Jazz got a stop on the defensive end, and Carlos Boozer put-back a last-second miss to send the game into overtime, where the Jazz put the finishing touches on the remarkable comeback win.
#3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Dallas Mavericks (2008) – The Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008 were not good. Still rebuilding post-Garnett, they had no business jumping out to a massive lead over the much more talented Dallas Mavericks, but that’s exactly what happened. The mediocre Wolves built a seemingly insurmountable 29-point lead, but as it happens, the lead was in fact quite mountable, as the Mavericks ripped into that lead thanks in large part to 24 second-half points by Jason Terry. With a seven-point victory, the Mavericks pulled off an impressive 36-point turnaround, albeit against one of the league’s worst teams.
#2 Sacramento Kings vs. Chicago Bulls (2009) – In one of the most stunning comebacks in league history, the Sacramento Kings rallied from being down 79-44 with 8:50 remaining in the third quarter to demoralize a Bulls team that flat-out didn’t see it coming. Sacramento finished the quarter on a 19-5 run to cut the lead to 19, then got it down to 95-91 with 2:28 left in the game. Rookie Tyreke Evans outscored the entire Bulls’ team 9-3 the rest of the way, and the comeback was complete. All of this was in Chicago, and the city’s fans literally booed the Bulls off the court. Needless to say, that was Vinny Del Negro’s last season as head coach in Chicago.
#1 Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz (1998) – In the midst of a seven-game winning streak, a Jazz team featuring Karl Malone and John Stockton did not enter this contest against Denver in 1998 expecting to fall into a 36-point deficit. The score was 70-36 at halftime with the lead expanding further in the third quarter, but that’s when Utah started to grind their way into the lead behind big nights from Malone (31 points) and Jeff Hornacek (29 points). Despite it being a record-breaking comeback, there was no one big remarkable moment. Rather, the Jazz just dismantled the Nuggets through attrition over the course the second half en route to a truly impressive come-from-way-behind victory.
The fact that teams have come back from deficits this huge is exactly why current NBA teams talk about never taking the foot off the gas. Almost no lead is safe, and that’s the beautiful thing about basketball. Sometimes the momentum shifts, and all that planned Twitter bragging goes right down the tubes. At least in Philadelphia’s case the team on the other end of the comeback was the defending champs.
And as this list proves, it could always be worse.
NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet
The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.
With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.
We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.
And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.
All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.
What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.
So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?
It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.
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Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.
In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.
The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.
The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.
Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.
Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.
Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.
It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.
The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.
In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.
You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.
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There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.
And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.
If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.
Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.