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NBA AM: What’s Next for the L.A. Lakers?

After firing head coach Byron Scott on Sunday, where do the Los Angeles Lakers go from here?

Alex Kennedy

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The Los Angeles Lakers are in the market for a new head coach after deciding to let go of Byron Scott on Sunday evening. Scott, who spent the last two seasons coaching the squad, had a team option for the 2016-17 campaign and the Lakers opted to replace him.

During Scott’s two years in Los Angeles, the Lakers went 38-126. Last season’s 21 wins set for mark for the worst season in Lakers’ history, but then the team managed to set the mark once again this year by winning just 17 games.

L.A. finished the campaign with the second-worst record in the NBA (behind only the 10-win Philadelphia 76ers) and the worst in the Western Conference.

In addition to being the worst campaign in Lakers history, this season’s .207 winning percentage was also the lowest of Scott’s 15-year coaching career. Scott’s record as an NBA head coach is now 454-647 in the regular season and 33-24 in the postseason (although he hasn’t led a team to the playoffs since the 2008-09 season).

This season, the Lakers had the league’s 29th-ranked offense (scoring just 98.6 points per 100 possessions) and 30th-ranked defense (allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions).

“We would like to thank Byron for his hard work, dedication and loyalty over the last two years, but have decided it is in the best interest of the organization to make a change at this time,” general manager Mitch Kupchak said in a statement released by the team.

It’s not a huge surprise to see Scott fired, not only because of the squad’s recent struggles but also because it seemed like he was having a hard time reaching and developing the Lakers’ young core. The 55-year-old made a number of questionable comments about the Lakers’ youth and strategy throughout the year, and it became pretty clear that a coaching change would benefit players like D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle among others (while also potentially helping the Lakers’ free-agency pitch).

Many fans in Los Angeles turned on Scott this year or last – even though he previously played 11 seasons with the Lakers and won three championships with them. His approach was often viewed as outdated and close-minded, such as when he stated that three-point shooting teams don’t win championships or when he failed to embrace analytics.

In the press release announcing that Scott was let go, the Lakers added that “the search for a new head coach will begin immediately.”

The organization is expected to do an extensive search as they look for Scott’s replacement, but early reports from The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski and ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne indicate that the Lakers are interested in Luke Walton, Jeff Van Gundy, Kevin Ollie, Ettore Messina, Jay Wright and David Blatt. This list will likely continue to grow, but those are the early names being linked to this high-profile job.

There are obviously a number of very good coaches on that list. It’s worth noting that the Lakers’ opening is still very attractive to many candidates despite the team’s recent struggles. It is a franchise with plenty of history (including 16 titles) and a very large fan base, not to mention that Los Angeles is a huge market with great weather and plenty of perks that aren’t available in other cities.

In fact, Tom Thibodeau (who joined the Minnesota Timberwolves) and Scott Brooks (who joined the Washington Wizards) were both reportedly interested in the Lakers’ job, but the team waited too long to fire Scott for reasons that remain unclear.

One option for L.A. could be leaving the vacancy open until July and telling star free agents that they can offer their input into the coaching search, which may help the Lakers’ pitch. However, the problem with waiting that long to make a hire is that other top coaches may come off of the board between now and then. The New York Knicks, Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings are among the other teams in the market for a head coach (although Phil Jackson and the Knicks may stick with Kurt Rambis).

Even if the Lakers don’t take that approach, it’s very likely that each coach’s potential impact on free agents will be considered as they search for their next sideline general.

That’s because the front office will have roughly $60 million in cap space to spend this summer, which is enough for two maximum-salaried players.

While building around their young talent is a possibility, Kupchak recently made comments that suggest the team may try to assemble a win-now squad by making trades and adding veteran free agents. If that’s the case, making a strong hire will be very important for the Lakers.

“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,” Kupchak said, according to our Eric Pincus. “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.”

While meeting with reporters after the season, Kupchak also discussed the possibility of dealing this year’s first-round pick if it lands in the top three (a 55.8 percent chance given the Lakers’ record). If the Lakers’ lottery pick falls outside of the top three, it will be sent to the 76ers (since they acquired the selection from the Phoenix Suns, who landed it in 2012’s Steve Nash trade).

Kupchak seems confident that L.A. can attract some talented free agents in July, as the team prepares for life without Kobe Bryant for the first time 20 seasons.

Possible unrestricted targets include Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, Hassan Whiteside, Nicolas Batum and Al Horford among others. Possible restricted targets include Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal and Harrison Barnes among others.

“This summer, we can get at least two max players – or you could get a max player and two or three other veterans,” Kupchak said. “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.

“We are selling the city, the franchise and our fan base to potential free agents. That’s what we sell.”

When Kupchak made those comments earlier this month, Scott was still the head coach since the front office had yet to make a decision regarding his future. However, one has to think that the next head coach will also be part of the Lakers’ free agency pitch, especially if they can make a splashy hire such as one of the notable names listed above.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team

Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.

Joel Brigham

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When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)

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