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Lakers: Fix It Now Or Fix It Later

Uncertainty abound as fans of the L.A. Lakers search for answers. Which direction should the Lakers go in from here?

Jabari Davis

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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.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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NBA

The Real Jrue Holiday Has Finally Arrived

It may have been a little later than they would have wanted, but the Jrue Holiday that New Orleans has always wanted is finally here, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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New Orleans has always earned the nickname “The Big Easy”, but ever since Jrue Holiday came to town, his time there has been anything but.

When New Orleans traded for Holiday back in 2013, they hoped that he would round out an exciting young core that included Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson. At 23 years old, Holiday averaged 17.7 points, 8.0 assists, and 4.2 rebounds the previous season and was coming off his first all-star appearance in Philadelphia, so the Pelicans had much to look forward to.

Unfortunately, recurring extensive injuries prohibited the Pelicans’ new core from ever playing together fully healthy, with Holiday getting his fair share of the bruises. In his first two seasons, Holiday played in only 74 games combined with the team due to injury, and things didn’t get much better his third season. While he played more games, Holiday was on a minutes restriction and his season ended again with injury.

Holiday avoided the injury bug his fourth season, but he nobly took a leave of absence at the start the season to tend to his ill wife, which caused him to miss the season’s first 12 games and 15 in total. Holiday’s inability to stay on the court coupled with New Orleans’ stagnated progress made him a forgotten man in the NBA. That was until last summer, when Holiday became a free agent.

Given the circumstances, Holiday did what he could for the Pelicans. He certainly proved he was above average, but he hadn’t shown any improvement since his arrival. Coupling that with both how many games he had missed in the previous four seasons and the league’s salary cap not increasing as much as teams had anticipated, and one would think to proceed with caution in regards to extending Jrue Holiday.

But the Pelicans saw it differently. New Orleans gave Holiday a five-year, $126 million extension last summer, befuddling the general masses. Besides Holiday’s inability to stay on the court, the Pelicans already had an expensive payroll, and they later added Rajon Rondo, another quality point guard, to the roster. So, with all that in mind, giving Holiday a near-max contract on a team that had made the playoffs a grand total of once in the Anthony Davis era seemed a little foolish.

This season, however, Jrue Holiday has rewarded the Pelicans’ faith in him and has proven the doubters so very wrong.

With a clean slate of health, Holiday has proven himself to be better than ever. This season, Holiday averaged career-highs in scoring (19 points a game) and field goal percentage (49 percent overall), which played a huge role in New Orleans having its best season since Chris Paul’s last hurrah with the team back in 2011.

Holiday’s impact extended beyond what the traditional numbers said. His on/off numbers from NBA.com showed that the Pelicans were much better on both sides of the ball when he was on the court compared to when he was off. Offensively, the Pelicans had an offensive rating of 108.9 points per 100 possessions when he was the on the court compared to 104.4 points per 100 possessions when he was off.

On the other side of the court, Holiday was even more integral. The Pelicans had a defensive rating of 103.3 per 100 possessions when Holiday was on the court compared to 112.3 off the court. Overall, the Pelicans were 13.6 points per 100 possessions better with Holiday on the floor. That was the highest net rating on the team, even higher than Anthony Davis.

Other statistics also support how impactful Holiday has been this season. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus page, Holiday’s 3.81 Real Plus-Minus ranked ninth among point guards – No. 16 offensively, No. 4 defensively – which beat out Kyrie Irving, John Wall, and Goran Dragic, all of whom made the All-Star team this year.

However, Holiday’s effectiveness shined through mid-way through the season, or more specifically, on Jan. 26, when Demarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles tear. While Davis certainly led the way, Holiday’s role could not have been understated when the Pelicans went 21-13 without their MVP candidate to finish the season. Offensively, Holiday’s point average went from 18.6 to 19.4 and his assist average went from 5.2 to 7.2, all while his turnover average – from 2.6 to 2.7 – stayed the same.

Defensively, Holiday had much to do with the Pelicans’ improved defense after Cousins went down. According to NBA.com, the Pelicans defensive rating went from 106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions to 103.7, and much of it can be attributed to Holiday. When Holiday was on the court, the team’s defensive rating was 101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions compared to 109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions with him off.

Holiday’s improved numbers, combined with the Pelicans steadying the boat without their star center, make a fair argument that Holiday was one of the league’s best all-around point guards this season, but Holiday’s style isn’t much of a thrill to watch. He doesn’t have Russell Westbrook’s other-worldly athleticism, he doesn’t have Stephen Curry’s lethal jumper, nor does he have Chris Paul’s floor general abilities. Holiday’s specialty is that he has every fundamental of a good point guard, which makes his impact usually fly under the radar.

That was until last week, when the Pelicans unexpectedly curb stomped the Blazers. The Jrue Holiday coming out party was in full-swing, as the 27-year-old torched Rip City, averaging 27.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 4 rebounds a game on 57 percent shooting from the field, including 35 percent from deep. He did all of that while stymieing MVP candidate Damian Lillard, as Dame averaged 18 points and 4 assists while shooting 35 percent from the field, including 30 percent from deep, and surrendered four turnovers a game.

If Holiday’s contributions weren’t on full display then, they certainly are now. The Pelicans have suddenly emerged as one of the West’s toughest and most cohesive teams in this year’s playoffs, with Holiday playing a huge role in the team’s newfound mojo and potentially glorious future.

This was the Jrue Holiday the New Orleans Pelicans had in mind when they first traded for him almost five years ago. While his impact has come a little later than they would have wanted, it’s as the old saying goes.

Better late than never.

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NBA Daily: Are Player Legacies Really On The Line?

How important is legacy in the NBA playoffs? Lang Greene takes a look.

Lang Greene

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As the NBA Playoffs continue to pick up steam, the subject of individual greatness has become the big topic of conversation. Today, we ask the question: is legacy talk just a bunch of hyperbole or are they really made or broken in the playoffs?

To be clear, legacies do matter. Reputations are built on reliability and how dependable someone is throughout the course of their respective body of work. We all have them. They are built over time and it’s seldom they change from one misstep – but they can. Some of the greatest players in NBA history never won a title; see John Stockton and Karl Malone during their Utah Jazz years. Some NBA greats never won a title until they were past their physical prime and paired with a young charge that took over the reins; see David Robinson in San Antonio. Some NBA greats never won a title as the leading man until they were traded to a title contending team; see Clyde Drexler in Houston. We also have a slew of Hall of Famers that have been inducted with minimal playoff success in their careers; see the explosive Tracy McGrady.

So what’s in a legacy? And why does it mean more for some then it does for others?

Four-time League MVP LeBron James’ legacy is always up for debate, despite battling this season to make his ninth NBA Finals appearance. James’ legacy seems to be up in the air on a nightly basis. Maybe it’s because of the rarified air he’s in as one of the league’s top 10 players all-time or maybe it’s just good for ratings.

As this year’s playoffs gain momentum, the topic of legacy has been mentioned early and often.

Out in the Western Conference, the legacy of Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook is being questioned at all angles. There’s no doubt Westbrook is one of the best players in the league today as the reigning MVP and coming off two consecutive seasons averaging a triple-double. However, Westbrook’s decision making has come into question plenty over the past couple of seasons.

The subject of whether you can truly win a championship with Westbrook as your lead guy serves as the centerpiece of the debate. It goes without saying former league MVP Kevin Durant bolted to the Golden State Warriors amid rumors that he could no longer coexist next to Westbrook in the lineup. Ever since Durant’s somewhat unexpected departure, it seems Westbrook has been hell-bent on proving his doubters wrong – even if it comes at the detriment to what his team is trying to accomplish.

The latest example was in game four of his team’s current first-round series versus the Utah Jazz.

Westbrook picked up four fouls in the first half as he was attempting to lock up point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a career night in Game 3 of the series. Westbrook infamously waved off head coach Billy Donovan after picking up his second personal foul in the first quarter. Westbrook was also in the game with three personal fouls and under two minutes left in the first half before picking up his fourth personal.

You can make an argument that this was just bad coaching by Donovan leaving him in the game in foul trouble, but it also points to Westbrook’s decision making and not being able to play within the constructs of a team dynamic. Further, what will be Westbrook’s legacy on this season’s Oklahoma City Thunder team with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George if they were to flame out in the first round with little fizzle – against a Jazz team with no star power and zero All-Stars? Is discussing Westbrook’s legacy worthless banter or is it a legitimate topic? There is no doubt on his current trajectory Westbrook is headed straight into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. As an individual player there is no greater achievement than to have your name etched in stone with the greats of yesteryear, but the court of public opinion factors in team success and this is where the topic of legacy comes into play.

Say what you will about Durant’s decision to go to Golden State, but his legacy is undoubtedly secured. Durant won the Finals MVP last season in absolute dominant fashion and showed up on the biggest of stages. All that’s left from those that question Durant’s legacy at this point are the folks on the fringe saying he couldn’t do it by himself. But that is exactly the line of thinking that’s getting Westbrook killed as well, because winning championships is all about team cohesiveness and unity.

Out in the Eastern Conference, all eyes will be on Milwaukee Bucks do everything star Giannis Antetokounmpo. After five seasons in the league, Antetokounmpo has zero playoff series victories attached to his name. Heading into the playoffs this season, the seventh-seeded Bucks were considered underdogs to the second-seeded Boston Celtics.

But the Celtics are wounded. They do not have the services of All Stars Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. The Celtics are a team full of scrappy young talent and cagey veterans. Antetokounmpo is clearly the best player in the series and teams with the best player usually fare well in a seven game series. But the Bucks are facing elimination down 3-2 versus Boston. Antetokounmpo has only been in the league half of the time Westbrook has, but the chirping about his legacy has already begun as Milwaukee attempts to win its first playoff series since 2001.

So what’s in a legacy? Are there varying degrees for which people are being evaluated?

Despite James’ success throughout his career, a first-round exit at the hands of the Indiana Pacers over the next week will damage his legacy in the minds of some. While others feel even if Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were to drop this series against the Celtics, he should be given a pass with the caveat that he still has plenty of time in his career to rectify.

As for Westbrook, there are vultures circling the head of his legacy and these folks feel that a first-round exit will damage his brand irreversibly after 10 seasons in the league

Ultimately, the topic of legacies makes for good column fodder, barbershop banter and sport debate television segments. Because when guys hang up their high tops for good, a Hall of Fame induction is typically the solidifying factor when it comes to a player’s legacy.

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: The Futures Of LeBron, PG13, Kawhi and More

Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and NBA writer David Yapkowitz talk about the future of LeBron James in Cleveland, the Paul George situation, Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs, the future of the Blazers and the Basketball 101 program that’s part of the Professional Basketball Combine.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and NBA writer David Yapkowitz talk about the future of LeBron James in Cleveland, the Paul George situation, Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs, the future of the Blazers and the Basketball 101 program that’s part of the Professional Basketball Combine.

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