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NBA Daily: Fixing the Los Angeles Lakers

James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking an in-depth look at the Los Angeles Lakers.

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Lakers tend to dominate NBA headlines. This has been especially true during season 1 of the LeBron James era. A week ago, the Lakers decided to rest James for the remainder of this season. Losing James was a strong reminder of what Lakers fans and NBA observers had noted for some time: the Lakers would not be returning to the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

Long since being effectively eliminated from playoff contention and now without James, the team isn’t a complete disaster, however. While the team’s most talented and recognizable players are out for the season, fans nonetheless have enjoyed the resurgent effort the team has been displaying and, for example, have enjoyed watching every big Alex Caruso moment. Caruso most recently led the Lakers to a comeback victory over hallway rival Los Angeles Clippers with a 32-point, 10-rebound and five-assist effort.

With all of this in mind, now is the time to look at the Lakers from top to bottom to find out what is working, what needs to be changed and where things may go from here.

What is working?

The Lakers have been under less game-to-game scrutiny since being eliminated from the playoff race and lesser-known players have stepped up. Jonathan Williams and Moritz Wagner have had nice moments and Caruso’s play is not a surprise to many Lakers fans who now wonder whether the team should have been utilizing Caruso as an option at point guard earlier in the season.

Nevertheless, it’s necessary to go back further to analyze what is working for the Lakers. Earlier this season, all was going well for the Lakers. The team was in the upper tier of the rankings in the Western Conference and if things had held up, the team may have been able to secure home court through at least the first half of the season. Of course, things didn’t hold up. James went down with a groin injury, Lonzo Ball couldn’t stay healthy, trade deadline trade rumors placed a cloud over the Lakers and the team slowly fell apart. Earlier in the season, Ball and budding star Brandon Ingram both made strides. When injuries ultimately did derail the season, an equally important issue rose to the surface and is addressed below: imbalanced roster construction.

So long as James is healthy and playing at his usual elite level, the Lakers have a shot to win on any given night. The team features several talented youngsters who could take significant steps forward in their development and the Lakers will always be a major destination for top-level players. However, many changes need to be made around this basic formula in order to maximize the remaining years on James’ contract and turn the team’s fortunes around in a long-term manner.

What needs to change?

  1. Roster Construction Around the Core

The Lakers feature solid, young talent around James. Ball, Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma are all capable NBA players with various levels of upside. While these players will become progressively more expensive, for now, these players are the team’s most valuable assets after James.

How to best support this core is key. Last year the team signed a number of veteran players on one-year contracts that were meant to offer supplementary ball-handling around James. This smorgasbord of veterans proved incapable of helping the Lakers stay afloat when injuries struck. In addition, the players the Lakers signed did not offer the outside shooting and spacing that James-led teams have thrived with for the past decade.

While each of these players has had good moments throughout the season, they proved to be a poor fit around James and their return is uncertain. So far, Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee have lobbied to return but renewing their contracts is a matter that is of secondary concern to a larger issue below: signing a star free agent.

  1. Health

As discussed elsewhere, no single factor alone submarined this season. But look no further than James’s late December groin strain as the most pivotal moment this season. Without James, the Lakers got off track and never recovered. Making matters worse were injuries to Ball, Hart and Ingram. Ingram going down late in the season is one of the individual occurrences that helped make clear the season wasn’t going to end well.

So long as he rests and rehabilitates, Lakers fans can look forward to a healthy James that won’t be coming off of a prolonged postseason campaign for the first time in the last decade. Considering James’s advanced mileage as a pro, this can be an invaluable key to his continuing longevity. Ingram’s recovery will be key as well. Assuming Ingram can fully recover while not suffering another blood clot (deemed likely after his successful surgery), then he can continue to grow as a key player alongside James or perhaps serve as a centerpiece in an eventual trade for a superstar.

  1. Coaching

This change is also the most unfair criticism, perhaps. In the discussion and criticisms that have followed in the wake of this season, the performance and job status of head coach Luke Walton has come up repeatedly. Despite the many other, real factors that weighed against Lakers’ success this season, it’s clear that Walton is going to be left to shoulder much of the blame. Firing and hiring a new coach can often be the easiest way for a franchise to achieve a reset of sorts and, for now, that looks to be the approach the Lakers will take. Being an NBA head coach, of course, requires an advanced knowledge of the game, Xs and Os, and other key strategies. In addition, a modern head coach must be capable of managing many of the out-sized personalities that currently occupy the league. Coaching James is a complicated matter and requires a delicate balance, which Walton arguably struggled with this season. Add in a youthful core and an uneven mix of veteran free agent acquisitions and the result is no easy task for any head coach. Perhaps another coach with a clean slate will have a positive effect on the team moving forward, should the Lakers choose to move on from Walton.

Focus Area: Free Agency

Wanting to hit a home run in free agency is an annual tradition in Los Angeles. This constant focus came to dominate headlines as Kobe Bryant’s career came to a close and the Lakers then tried to rebuild following Bryant’s retirement. Now the Lakers can lean into a sales pitch centered around playing alongside James and their talented core. The Lakers missed out on Paul George last year, but James signaled his desire for another star and stated that he’d be willing to assist in the pitch.

“I will be as active as I need to be for this franchise to get better. That’s why I came here. I came here to win. And obviously, we need to get better, as far as our personnel. We have an opportunity to get better. And there’s a lot of talent out there, and a lot of guys that can help our franchise. So I’ll be as active as I need to be for us to get better and go from there,” James told Bleacher Report.

This summer will feature a top-tier free agent class, including Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard. After these players, the Lakers will likely also look to Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker, among others. While listing nearly any free agent as an opportunity is not realistic for many franchises, the Lakers are no ordinary franchise. Signing James confirmed that and in addition, with another star player, the Lakers are well poised to be at least among the Western Conference contenders, depending on how this upcoming offseason unfolds.

Focus Area: Trade Market

The Lakers continue to have the necessary assets to trade for another team’s star player (Anthony Davis is the most obvious candidate). However, complicating factors persist for the Lakers. Their draft pick comes during a weak draft. Furthermore, the Lakers’ recent wins have helped to reduce the odds of jumping into the top four, likely dooming the pick to be outside the top 10. While Ingram’s prognosis is positive and he should not experience another blood clot, potential trade partners may be wary of assuming that risk. Such thinking would lower Ingram’s value as a trade asset. Ongoing business and family related drama combined with an inability to consistently stay healthy also potentially hampers Ball’s value as well. Throw in the lopsided Zubac trade and the poorly handled trade attempts for Davis, and it’s reasonable to wonder if the Lakers will be able to pull off a blockbuster trade.

In New Orleans, former general manager Dell Demps was fired shortly after the Lakers-related trade drama. With the introduction of personalities in the Pelican’s front office, the Lakers can only hope that the Pelicans may come back around to revisit what the Lakers might offer in a deal for Davis. Remember, Davis is under contract for another year and any non-Lakers team that would trade for Davis would do so with no guarantee or indication that Davis would stay beyond the last year of his contract. Should the Lakers strike out on any new attempts to acquire Davis or any other potential star via trade, the team, as mentioned above, should pivot and make clear that they will be building around their young players to help quiet the trade rumors that swirled last season.

The Lakers face a very important offseason. Signing James last year set a new course for this franchise and has positioned it to make a significant leap forward. If the Lakers learn from the mistakes of this season and find some luck in free agency and the draft, they will be well-positioned to earn favorable headlines next season, which would be a nice shift from a disappointing first year with LeBron on the roster.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 4/23/19

The annual Portsmouth Invitational is in the books, and the bulk of the early entry candidates have declared for the 2019 NBA Draft. Steve Kyler takes another look at all 60-picks in his latest NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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The NBA Draft process is in full swing with teams gearing up for workouts and the annual NBA Draft Combine.

Last week, draftable seniors took the floor at the annual Portsmouth Invitational, and while the quality of the players that take part in Portsmouth has diminished over the years, that did not stop NBA executives from piling in and start working the back channels of the draft process, with fellow executives and agents.

Amusingly, some teams have already started to promise Summer League spots to obvious players that will go undrafted, and even have started to gauge interest on fringe draft guys in being a second-round pick and agreeing to a two-way deal.

While it’s way too early in the process to buy into interest from one team or another, it is interesting to hear how aggressive teams are being this early in the process to stake out guys they have interest in after the draft.

There were a few notables from Portsmouth worth watching in the work out process, including Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr. and Campbell’s Chris Clemons, who tied as the tournament’s leading scorers at 18.3 points per game. UNC Wilmington’s Devontae Cacok was the tournament leading rebounder at 10.3 per game.

FSU’s Christ Koumadje measured in as the tallest player at Portsmouth with an official measure of 7 feet, 4.25 inches, and a standing reach of 9 feet, 9.5 inches. He also notched the second highest field goal percentage at 76.5 percent on 13 of 17 shooting.

There are a few dates to keep in mind as the draft process ramps into full speed.

The NBA deadline to declare for the 2019 NBA Draft is 11:59 p.m. on April 29. Players must submit in writing to be a part of the draft.

The NBA Draft lottery, which will determine the top four selections of the 2019 NBA Draft, will be held in Chicago on May 14, just as the annual Draft Combine kicks off.

Players seeking to leave the door open to return to college must declare their intentions to withdraw from the draft by May 29.

The last date to withdraw from the draft by NBA is 5 p.m. on June 10. This is usually not college level players, this date is typically international players that opt out of the draft.

The 2019 NBA Draft is set for June 20th.

Here is this week’s 60-pick Mock Draft:

Here are the first-round picks that are owed and how those picks landed where they are.

The Atlanta Hawks were to receive the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyle Korver trade in 2017, which is top-10 protected. But based on the final standings, that pick will not be conveyed.

The Boston Celtics were to receive the Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick as a result of the three-team Jeff Green trade in 2015; the pick is top-eight protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will not be conveyed.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Dallas Mavericks first-round pick as a result of the Luka Dončić – Trae Young swap on draft night in 2018. The pick is top-five protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the more favorable of either the Sacramento Kings or Philadelphia 76ers first-round picks as part of the Markelle Fultz pre-draft trade in 2017. Based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed; the Kings pick is the more favorable and would convey to Boston.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the LA Clippers first-round pick as a result of the Deyonta Davis draft day trade with Memphis in 2016. The Grizzlies got the pick in their Jeff Green/Lance Stephenson deal at the deadline in 2016. The pick is lottery protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are to receive the Houston Rockets first-round pick as a result of the three-team deadline deal that sent out Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss.

The Brooklyn Nets are to receive the Denver Nuggets first-round pick as a result of the Kenneth Faried – Darrell Arthur trade in July 2018. The pick is top-12 protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed.

The San Antonio Spurs are to receive the Toronto Raptors first-round pick as a result of the Kawhi Leonard – DeMar DeRozan trade in July 2018. The pick is top-20 protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed.

The Phoenix Suns are to receive the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as a result of the Eric Bledsoe trade in 2017. The pick has top 3 and 17-30 protections, designed to yield a lottery-level pick to Phoenix. Based on the final standings this pick would not convey. Given that the debt is not settled this year, the Bucks pick in 2020 would be top-7 protected.

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NBA

NBA Daily: James Harden’s All-Around Deadly Game

Spencer Davies debunks the myths surrounding James Harden’s skill set by using a breakdown of the Houston Rockets’ first-round series vs. the Utah Jazz as evidence.

Spencer Davies

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“Lazy! Ballhog! Choker!”

The basketball social media universe is unforgiving for a number of players in the NBA. By scanning the timelines of many users in this world, you’ll see all kinds of arguments and debates—seriously or jokingly—rooted in recency bias due to the 24/7 news cycle rate at which news happens in 2019. A good chunk of these are referred to as “hot takes,” a.k.a. baseless claims meant to get a rise out of people reacting in real time.

Now, the issue with those viewpoints is that once something is proclaimed, it is set in stone. Some fans won’t bother to watch or listen when a player improves or adapts to whatever area was once a struggle. Above all else, they shudder to see success because it means they’re wrong. And who can be wrong about something in today’s world? Oh no, the horror.

In turn, that realization evolves into an actual hatred of a player’s game (and in some cases personal, unfortunately), causing a domino effect throughout and gaining traction to spread that disdain.

The target most seem to go after? None other than the NBA’s reigning MVP, Houston Rockets superstar James Harden.

Let’s get this out of the way first—yes, Harden embellishes. He does it more often than anybody in the league, probably. He’s also been given leeway on stepbacks regarding the gathers he takes. Just because that’s true, however, does not mean that every foul committed against him isn’t one, nor is every movement he makes a travel.

With the officiating the NBA has, you have to be mindful that a more demonstrative sell job is going to get you a call. Plus, if it works to your benefit and keeps working, why stop? Nobody wants to hear that, but if you look anywhere around this game you’ll recognize that plenty of players are doing the same exact thing.

That said, in the first-round series with the Utah Jazz, Harden hasn’t even been getting the number of foul calls we’re used to seeing him get anyway. If it weren’t for Game 3, he’d have been to the free throw line just eight times with only 12 personal fouls drawn. While it’s only a small sample size, to this point, his free throw rate is the lowest it’s been since last postseason.

Sure, he worked his way to the charity stripe twice as much Saturday, but that’s because his shots were not falling, meaning he had to take matters into his own hands to attack more frequently—especially with the Jazz forcing him right and going behind him defensively every possession.

Which brings us to the next point: Harden is an exceptional passer. Due to his isolation-heavy game, the common misconception is that Beard is a selfish player. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since he’s put up less-than-ideal scoring numbers when he’s put it on the floor against Utah, Harden has found another way to positively impact the game with his distribution. His 6.7 assists per game off drives is far and away the highest average among the rest of the league in playoff time.

The main beneficiaries of these dimes have been two guys—Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker. If you want to know why Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni constantly raves over Harden’s playmaking ability, there’s your reason (threes and layups!)

In forcing defenses to collapse when he takes it to the hole, it more often than not leaves that pair open. When Harden comes in, Capela clears out just long enough to create space for a quick baseline cut and easy high handoff for two points.

Capela converts on 75 percent of the passes he receives from Harden, who’s averaged four assists per game to the big man this series. This has been one of the most deadly combinations for years, and the duo’s chemistry has only gotten stronger with more time together.

If defenses try to take away the alley-oop and crowd Harden at the point of attack, he’ll send it to his guys in the short corner almost every time. During this series, that man has been Tucker. All five of his three-point makes have come off a Harden assist. Sometimes others will occupy the spot as well and just wait for that kick out.

Harden’s also been able to locate the elbows pretty well, citing Eric Gordon and Gerald Green’s combined five three-balls as an example of that. If an overall career-best 48.6 assist percentage to start the postseason doesn’t turn people off to the “ballhog” narrative, nothing will.

It’d be remiss of this writer to not mention Harden’s work on the defensive end, too. Matched up against Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio—the players he’s guarded most—he’s held those players in check.

He isn’t assigned to the best offensive weapons on the team—Mitchell has had his way against him—but Harden has limited Ingles to six points on 49 possessions and Rubio to eight points on 41 possessions, respectively. The whiff in transition with Royce O’Neale going right around him for an easy dunk looks terrible, but it’s nothing but a blip on the radar regarding the whole picture.

Cherry picking certain highlights and statistics is a common practice of the hot take culture to fit their perspective, so they’ll use that to their advantage in arguments. Don’t let it distract you from the fact that Harden is, without a shadow of a doubt, turning himself into one of the most cerebral players in the NBA.

Consider that this small stretch of elite basketball has come against a top defensive team in the league. Harden finds ways to dissect. There’s always the threat of a stepback three—over eight contested attempts per game in which he’s knocked down 38.5 percent of—going down. If he chooses to deliberately slow the pace down in the halfcourt, there’s a good chance he’ll zoom right by you to open up those previously mentioned options.

Going 0-for-15 to start Game 3 was historically poor, but Harden racked up seven assists and six steals during the struggles. He still proceeded to score a game-high 14 points in the fourth quarter and knock down the most critical three of the night to lead Houston to a clutch win on the road.

In the end, it’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.

Some of Harden’s detractors will still blind themselves of the truly special performances that are actually happening. At that point, it’d be better to admit you don’t like the guy rather than to invent reasons why he’s “overrated” on the floor.

While everyone has their opinion on Harden, D’Antoni has his own.

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” the Rockets head coach said last March. “It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

D’Antoni’s been around this league for a long time.

Perhaps we shouldn’t take the opinion of a person that’s coached Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony lightly.

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NBA

NBA Daily: How Toronto Is Getting Past Its Playoff Demons

Even if they’re not facing the toughest opponent, multiple factors have helped the Raptors get over their playoff woes and dominate a playoff series, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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Being up 3-1 is usually child’s play for a No. 2 seed. For Toronto, it means so much more.

Since the Raptors’ rise to prominence in 2013, this is how every single playoff series for them has turned out.

2014: Lost to the fourth-seeded Nets team in seven games
2015: Lost to the fifth-seeded Wizards in four games
2016: Beat the seventh-seeded Pacers in seven games, beat the third-seeded HEAT in seven games, lost to the first-seeded Cavaliers in six games
2017: Beat the seventh-seeded Bucks in seven games, lost to the third-seeded Cavaliers in four games
2018: Beat the eighth-seeded Wizards in six games, lost to the fourth-seeded Cavaliers in four games

For the past half-decade, Toronto would either struggle to beat an opponent or get flat out embarrassed by it. In so doing, the franchise has developed a reputation for not being able to step up its game when the postseason comes around.

When the Magic stole Game 1 from the Raptors last week, fears of history of repeating itself surfaced. In the past, the Raptors have not responded well to obstacles. They may have been able to defeat an inferior opponent who showed some fight, but when the Raptors got over the hump, they made it harder on themselves than it had to be.

In the three games following Game 1, Toronto has bested Orlando three consecutive times, and they’ve done so relatively easily. The Raptors have beaten the Magic by an average of 18.67 points per game.

Beating the Magic, a team that hadn’t sniffed the playoffs in six years with a roster full of playoff virgins, is not what should be catching people’s eye. It’s that after several years of promising that things change for the better only to fail every time, Toronto has finally put its money where its mouth is.

Trading DeMar DeRozan – who had very well-documented struggles in the postseason – for Kawhi Leonard – the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 NBA Finals MVP – probably had something to do with that, but that was expected and more importantly, it hasn’t been just that.

Toronto’s success so far in the playoffs has not stemmed from Kawhi being a one-man show. In fact, there are multiple reasons as to how the Raptors have been able to make their playoff struggles a thing of the past.

The Continuing Rise of Pascal Siakam

There doesn’t need to be much explained about the third-year player because you’ve probably heard all about him. The New Mexico State alum has risen above the ranks to become one of the finer young players in the league and is one of the frontrunners for Most Improved Player. The refinement in his all-around game vaulted him to perhaps the second best player in Toronto.

The only question in hand was whether Siakam could keep up his impressive play in the postseason. This wasn’t out of lack of trust in him. It was because Toronto’s previous All-Stars like DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (more on him later) showed time and time again that they could not be trusted in a playoff series.

Pascal has put all those worries to bed. At least for the time being. Siakam has been nothing short of dominant in the four games that he’s gone up against Orlando, averaging 22.3 points on 53.8 percent shooting from the field as well as nine rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

The highlight of his performance was his Game 3 stat line in which Siakam put up 30 points on 65/75/100 splits as well as 11 rebounds and four assists. Compared to DeRozan and Lowry, who sometimes had good playoff performances but just not consistently good performances. Pascal Siakam’s dependability should make the Raptors feel good about their chances as the postseason continues.

As it stands now, he has shown he is not afraid of the moment. Only time will tell if it stays that way for him.

Marc Gasol’s Presence

If trading for Kawhi was the evidence that Toronto wasn’t messing around with its window of opportunity, then trading for Gasol was the evidence that it would do everything in its power to reach its ceiling.

The Raptors pounced on the rare opportunity to acquire the former Defensive Player of the Year for pennies on the dollar, and Gasol’s acquisition has paid off big time since his arrival. Gasol not only provides them with a rim protector down low. He also brings a pretty advanced playoff pedigree.

Adding defense wasn’t necessarily a must for Toronto at the deadline, but an upgrade was definitely welcome. It didn’t take long for Gasol to take the starting center position from Serge Ibaka, and when he did, it got results.

The Raptors had the fifth-lowest defensive rating overall this season, allowing 106.8 points per 100 possessions. Gasol definitely made his own mark on the defense, as the Raptors actually had the third-lowest defensive rating – allowing 105.7 points per 100 possessions – after they had acquired him.

This postseason, Gasol’s impact on the floor couldn’t be more valuable. Coming into the series, Gasol’s task was to stop Orlando’s main source of offense, Nikola Vucevic. Vooch had his best season as a pro, averaging 21/12 on 52/36/79 splits, which earned him an All-Star nod.

Since the series started, Gasol has made life miserable for Nik, as Vucevic as averaged 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on 37/27/78 splits. According to NBA.com, Vucevic’s offensive rating is 98 when Gasol is on the court and 118 when he is off the court. Overall, both Vooch’s and the Magic’s net rating when he and Gasol share the court together is -19.8.

The Magic were plus-17 offensively with Vucevic on the court during the regular season, so if he’s not scoring, they are in trouble. Gasol has clearly made a ton of trouble for Orlando alone because of how he’s neutralized Vucevic.

If Gasol can stop one of the league’s most offensively talented bigs in Vucevic, that has to make the Raptors feel good about how he does against the center on their next most likely opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers.

Lessening Kyle Lowry’s Role

Outside of that abominable performance he had in Game 1, Lowry hasn’t been that bad since the playoffs began. Lowry’s averaging 14.3 points on 48/40/78 splits in Games 2 through 4. Those aren’t world-beater type numbers, but they are solid for a starting point guard.

That doesn’t change that Lowry’s numbers have declined in this year’s playoffs. Even though he’s averaging the same number of minutes he usually does, Lowry is averaging the lowest field goal attempts he’s ever had in the playoffs on average (9.5) as well as his lowest usage rate at 17.2 percent.

This is because the Raptors have relied more heavily on Kawhi and Pascal to shoulder the scoring load, which has done wonders for them offensively. Lowry is not a bad offensive option by any means. Leonard and Siakam have just proven to better at the moment.

Strangely enough, by decreasing his role offensively on the team, it somehow made him more effective overall as a player. Toronto is somehow a plus-50.7 when Lowry is on the floor, as the team has been dominant on both ends of the floor when he’s playing. Because his role isn’t as substantial as it had been in previous seasons, Lowry may just be playing in a role that was better suited for him. Some players do better when there isn’t nearly as much pressure on them.

Again, we expected that Toronto would do better after the personnel moves they made this summer. What we didn’t expect were these other subplots that made them more dynamic and much more of a threat in the postseason.

The road ahead only gets tougher for the Raptors, but if they can keep this up, then they might be the ones representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals – which could be enough success to make a pitch for re-signing Kawhi Leonard this summer.

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