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NBA Daily: The Placeholder Head Coach?

It should not be surprising that Luke Walton is being questioned in L.A. as he wasn’t hired to coach this sort of team. Combine that with tremendous pressure to be good right away, and the current situation should have been expected.

Steve Kyler

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The Placeholder Coach?

The reports of unrest within the Los Angeles Lakers shouldn’t come as a surprise, after all, current Lakers head coach Luke Walton is hardly a proven championship head coach. When Walton was hired, he was an up and coming assistant that had some name recognition and the kind of personality the Lakers needed to skipper themselves through what was expected to be a protracted rebuild.

With the rebuild turning the corner with the addition of LeBron James and a cast of proven veterans, the idea that Lakers’ president Magic Johnson expected more shouldn’t be surprising — in fact, it should have been expected.

Johnson landed his first domino in James and needed to have a respectable season in order to complete the job next summer in landing a second big fish free agent. The Lakers won’t be the only team major market team with cap money to spend, and in order to win out in free agency, the Lakers need to be able to sell championship aspirations.

Now there is something to be said about not overreacting to the first few weeks of an NBA season, especially considering James isn’t exactly setting the world on fire defensively. And if history repeats itself, James usually kicks it up a notch or two in January, meaning the Lakers have a lot of time to sort things out.

The interesting part of the Lakers coaching dynamic is the idea that Johnson may be unhappy with the supporting staff on Walton’s bench and that may be a harder issue to solve. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that Walton hires new faces; there are plenty of solid coaches without jobs. What makes this story interesting is the timing.

There has been rampant speculation that recently fired Cavaliers coach Ty Lue, could be a consideration given his history with James, although that seems a little shortsighted. Lue’s ascension to the head coaching job in Cleveland was about James trusting Lue a lot more than he did former Cavs coach David Blatt. It’s hard to imagine Johnson would sign up for a would-be rebellion in his own locker room, especially when James doesn’t seem to have an issue with Walton.

One of the big reasons James felt so comfortable with the Lakers was that he and Johnson see things in a similar way, meaning he wouldn’t have to be the bad guy if something like a coaching change needed to happen.

Again, it’s early in the season. But for now it seems the criticism of Walton is more about Johnson being proactive in addressing areas of concern more than anything brewing in the locker-room, which is why adding Lue wouldn’t make a lot of sense if there isn’t unrest inside the team.

The other big criticism of Walton is the lack of structure and system, and that may not be as easy to change as one would think — especially considering how much has to flow through James. Again, changes to the staff might bring some more creativity, but at every stop in his career, coaches have struggled with how to operate around James, who flourishes as a playmaker on the fly.

In Walton’s defense, it’s easy to say he should be doing more with the group he has, but the Lakers lack consistent shooting, and up until the Tyson Chandler signing yesterday, they lacked a lot of interior defense.

There is no question that some of the Johnson/Walton talk is because they are the Lakers and James brings a magnifying glass to everything his team does.

There is some truth to the notion the Lakers are not functioning like the team they expected to be, but that may be more to do with misplaced expectations than anything else.

That said, there is no doubt that Johnson understands his team isn’t trending in the direction he wants it to be heading, and that has ramifications beyond the current season.

It’s too early to say that Walton is going to be fired. In fact, the Lakers are publicly and privately saying Walton isn’t in jeopardy, and it’s simply that Johnson as a leader wants more than he’s currently getting.

Most teams look at the NBA season in ten game chunks. The first ten games have been a mixed bag, and if things don’t start to shape up in the next ten, speculation on Walton’s future will heat up. After all, he wasn’t signed to coach James and the current gang of veterans. He was signed to skipper the team through a rebuild, with the hope he and his young team would grow into something.

It’s never nice to label anyone a placeholder, however, in Walton’s case, he might end up being exactly that if he can’t appease Johnson and the bigger picture goal of being a playoff team in the West this year.

That’s a lofty goal, but consider the promises Johnson has made. It’s understandable why he’d look at a change if Walton can’t right the proverbial ship.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @jblancartenba, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @MattJohnNBA, @DrewMaresca, @JordanHicksNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA Daily: Free Agency On Deck

The 2019 NBA Free Agency period is upon us, and there are already lots of things in motion. Steve Kyler takes a look at some of the notable situations to watch.

Steve Kyler

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With the 2019 NBA Draft and its whopping 23 transactions (some still awaiting the new cap year) in the rearview mirror, the 2019 NBA Free Agency period is now on deck.

The NBA moved up some of the normal dates on things related to free agency, such as when teams can schedule meetings and when teams can officially begin talking to players.

Teams can now have contact with agents on June 29th at 6:00 pm EST, specifically for the purpose of scheduling meetings for June 30th.

On June 30th after 6:00 pm, teams may begin meeting and talking with free agents to discuss terms and frameworks of new deals. Those deals cannot become official until Saturday, July 6th, which is the first day contracts and deals can be made.

It is expected that the final salary cap figures will be released on or about the 29th, in advance of free agency opening.

The prevailing thought in NBA circles is that the final 2019-2020 salary cap figures will come in a touch higher than the expected $109 million cap teams have been preparing for. That will have an impact on most of the slotted salary figures such as minimums, cap exceptions and maximum contract levels.

While more than 45 percent of the NBA is set to be a free agent this summer, here are some of the notable situations we’re watching:

The Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers caught this first big fish last summer when LeBron James opted to join the Lakers. Less than a year later, the Lakers landed big fish number two in Anthony Davis, who will officially become a Laker on July 6th.

The Lakers have been fairly active trying to find ways to open more salary cap space, and as our own Eric Pincus chronicled for Bleacher Report, there is a path to a full maximum salary slot that doesn’t include dealing team favorite, Kyle Kuzma.

If the Lakers can find a taker for the contracts for Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones in which they take back no material salary, the Lakers can get to about $32 million in usable cap space. That is just $700,000 shy of the max salary slot needed for free agents like Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler or Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, who many in Laker circles believe are the prime targets as the Lakers third star.

It’s unclear why the Lakers did not include the necessary pieces to ensure a full max slot. The truth of the matter is Wagner and Bonga are nice assets that should be easy enough to move into someone’s cap space. The lack of their inclusion may have more to do with wanting certainty on a big fish before giving away nice assets.

While the Lakers do have eyes for a third star and have been fairly aggressive in the back channel feeling out process with free agents, they are also preparing for Plan B scenarios in which their available space gets used on two second-tier players.

It is not at all uncommon for teams not to put their eggs in one basket, but it’s notable for the Lakers – who have drawn significant criticism for not thinking through all the options – to be working multiple options.

While Butler and Walker seem to be the primary players of interest, there has also been considerable talk about Clippers guard Patrick Beverly, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic and Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez.

The Rockets Have Dreams

After a pretty damaging report surfaced at Yahoo Sports suggesting that the relationship between Houston Rockets’ guards Chris Paul and James Harden seems broken beyond repair, the Rockets have been doing damage control for the better part of the last week.

While the Rockets have gone to great lengths to quell that report, they have also been fairly aggressive in trying to open up cap space for a third star.

While the Rockets are hopeful they could move some cap money dangling the ending $14.05 million contract of Eric Gordon and the $16.3 million deal of big man Clint Capela, to get to any real, meaningful space, the Rockets would also have to move PJ Tucker.

Unfortunately for Houston, Paul is slated to earn $38.5 million and Harden is slated for $38.15 million. Even if the Rockets could dump all of their contracts for nothing in return, they could still get to roughly $23.3 million in space, which would be roughly $9.3 million shy of a full max slot for a player like Sixers guard Jimmy Butler.

The Celtics Have Money

The Boston Celtics took a couple blows this offseason with the news that All-Star guard Kyrie Irving is likely walking away to the Brooklyn Nets, and cornerstone big man Al Horford opted out of his final contract year and is now expected to command a four-year deal on the open market.

The Celtics have quietly moved enough things around – in the dumping of Aron Baynes to the Phoenix Suns – to get within striking distance of a maximum salary slot.

Assuming the Celtics pass or pull the Qualifying Offer for Terry Rozier, his $9.1 million cap hold would come off, putting the Celtics at just at $34 million in usable space.

The Celtics have kicked the tires on Houston big man Clint Capela and Thunder big man Steven Adams, but the player the Celtics seem to covet the most is Charlotte guard Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein of the New York Times tweeted as much today, which lines up with the ideal scenario painted by some in Boston circles after the draft.

There has been considerable fan interest in Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell as a replacement for Irving. However, it does not seem the Celtics are as high on the list for Russell as Celtics fans would like.

D’Angelo Russell Watch

As covered above, Brooklyn All-Star D’Angelo Russell seems to be in fairly decent demand. The problem for the Nets is that they cannot create the cap space necessary to sign Celtics guard Kyrie Irving and Warriors forward Kevin Durant and still hang on to Russell’s cap hold. They have the means to get two, and it seems, for now, Russell is third on the list.

If the Nets can land both Irving and Durant, the belief is Russell will hit unrestricted free agency and open up bidding.

For weeks, Russell has been pegged as the favorite of the Indiana Pacers, but it seems more likely that the Pacers are going to pivot to Jazz free agent Ricky Rubio, with Russell appearing not to be as high on Indiana as they are on him.

The New York Knicks are said to have serious interest in Russell should they miss on Irving, which looks likely. Knicks leadership has said repeatedly they were not going to blow their cap flexibility on second tier guys. However, Knicks sources said recently that they do not view a 23-year old obtainable All-Star as second-tier.

There are several other teams supposedly in the hunt on Russell including the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. However, the Suns no longer have a max salary slot after their trades around the draft.

There is a dark horse suitor for Russell, and that’s the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves don’t have cap space to sign Russell outright, but they do at least appear open to trying to take away some salary to land Russell if he indeed becomes unrestricted.

If the Wolves can find a home for Andrew Wiggins and his $27.5 million salary, the Wolves could get awfully close to a max salary slot for Russell.

As we do every year at this time, Basketball Insiders will be tracking the minute by minute activities around the 2019 NBA Free Agency period with our annual Free Agency Diary. The Diary is live now and will be updated throughout the day as rumors and deals start to leak out.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @jblancartenba, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @MattJohnNBA, @DrewMaresca, @JordanHicksNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Storylines To Watch For In 2020

Just 10 days into the offseason, Matt John takes a look at what storylines have been created from all that’s happened so far.

Matt John

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If it wasn’t clear before, it is now – the NBA is a year-round sport. Even though the season lasts up to nine months, we never seem to get a break from professional basketball. Honestly though, that’s probably because we don’t want one.

The offseason gives us so much drama that it’s almost impossible to take our eyes off our phone. Woj and Shams “bombs” are like a shot of adrenaline, and we as the audience are basketball junkies anxiously waiting for our next score.

We’re not even two weeks past the NBA finals, and the drama has already started. And it started with a bang. Anthony Davis and LeBron can stake a claim as the league’s fiercest duo. The Jazz have solidified themselves as a Western Conference contender. New Orleans is now a league pass team. The sky is suddenly falling in Boston and Houston. All that New York had hoped for is blowing up in its face. So, just another Tuesday for Knicks fans.

We haven’t even entered the main course of the NBA offseason and we already have some storylines to keep our eyes on for next season. There are going to be plenty more once free agency starts, but let’s take a look at what to keep an eye on when it comes to next season.

Is Lonzo Ball good?

Now we’ve been asking ourselves this question since he came into the league. Lonzo is the most polarizing young player in the league. Some of it comes from the bias, both positive and negative, that he’s had to face in the last two years. Some of it comes from the limited sample sizes we’ve had to watch. Some of it has come from playing for one of the league’s most storied franchises.

There’s no doubt that what Lonzo does well, he does spectacularly. At 6-foot-6, he brings so many rare qualities to the court. He has excellent handles, boasts a court vision that not many others in the league has and can get after the rebound. He’s even shown that he can make life hell for anyone who tries to take him one-on-one.

But his holes are clear as day. His funky shooting form has not held up well since transitioning to the NBA. He hasn’t shown much of a scoring instinct. He can’t seem to stay on the floor. Still, he was the second overall pick for a reason.

Now here comes perhaps the real test for him. New Orleans could be the perfect team for him. Now that he’s no longer in LeBron’s shadow, Ball should have the ball in his hands more often than not. Alvin Gentry has a reputation for having his teams run the floor – the Pelicans tied for second in pace last season (103.3) – which should make Lonzo feel right at home. Jrue Holiday, one of the better all-around point guards in the league, should be the perfect complement to him as a playmaker, shooter and defender.

Oh, and you’ve probably already fantasized about how beautiful those Lonzo-to-Zion alley-oops are going to look four months from now.

There will be challenges up ahead, like how Lonzo is going to do now that he’ll be a more featured player for his team. New Orleans needs more three-point shooting, as it was ranked 24th in three-point percentage (34.3) and 21st in attempts on average (10.3). Lonzo’s a career 31.5 percent shooter from three, and even with the haul they got from the Lakers, not a whole lot of the new guys space the floor, which could hurt Lonzo’s ability to space the floor.

Now that Lonzo no longer has the pressure to contribute to a winner right away, time is now on his side. Progress may come quickly or it may come slow, but as long as he avoids the injury bug, we can finally see what the guy is made out of this season.

Can Donovan Mitchell be relied on in the playoffs?

Spida has been exceeding expectations from the moment he entered the league. It’s not every day you see a late lottery pick be the leader of a pseudo-contender in the first two years of his pro career.

You can’t honestly complain about what he’s been able to do for Utah since the team has had to endure through losing Gordon Hayward. What can you do is point out his flaws, and he’s got a few.

Mitchell can definitely put the ball in the bucket, as he’s averaged 22 points in his brief career so far. However, he doesn’t exactly have the best shooting percentages, as he’s put up splits of 43/35/80 over his last two years. Those numbers only get worse in the playoffs. While his scoring average is slightly better at 23.4 points a game, his shooting falls off a cliff, shooting 39/23/89 splits.

Utah has shown that it can’t afford to have its young franchise cornerstone struggle on the game’s biggest stage, as they’ve been eliminated two consecutive times in gentleman’s sweeps at the hands of the Rockets. Not that it’s entirely on his shoulders, but if Donovan struggles, so do the Jazz.

Jazz fans will point out without a second’s hesitation that his low efficiency is because the team does not have another scoring threat to take the pressure off of him. Definitely a valid point. Utah has not had a secondary scoring threat to ease the burden put on Mitchell. No help in that department would make life hard for anyone in the league. That won’t be a problem anymore Utah now that they made their summer splash with Mike Conley.

Conley should be exactly what the doctor ordered. An experienced vet who’s scoring and playmaking abilities should do wonders both for Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Technically, he has no All-Star appearances to his name – and probably won’t now that his prime will most likely end in the West – but anyone who’s watched him knows how much this should improve the Jazz.

Now that Conley has arrived, we’re finally going to see how Donovan will do now that he won’t have to take the entire scoring burden by himself. The Jazz still have some issues to take care of such as their now desperate need for a stretch-four, but with Conley on board, we’ll at least see what Mitchell’s true ceiling is now.

What is Danny Ainge going to do with his newfound cap space?

Once upon a time, the Boston Celtics had the most promising future in the NBA. Now, what’s happened to them is indescribable.

Losing Kyrie Irving was always in the back of Celtics fans’ mind that by the time reports started circulating that he wasn’t coming back, they were okay with it. Al Horford’s departure was the real gut punch. There was never any drama that came with Horford, and he did all he could for Boston. Seeing him gone is going to hurt both on and off the court.

Silver lining: Horford and Irving’s departures, along with the recent Aron Baynes trade to Phoenix, opens up a lot of cap room for Boston. In fact, if the Celtics renounce Terry Rozier’s cap hold – $9+ million – they will have enough room to add a player with a max contract.

How Danny Ainge uses it is something people should watch out for. The Celtics now have a gaping hole at center with both Horford and Baynes gone, so odds are they may use it on a center. Combine buzz said that the Celtics were looking at Clint Capela, which could still be in play this summer if Houston really wants cap relief.

They could also look to take Steven Adams off the Thunder’s hands or pay up for Nikola Vucevic. Knowing Ainge, it’s very possible what he does is mess with other teams who have guys they can’t afford to lose but don’t want to pay top dollar for.

Brooklyn did this for two years when they gave rich offer sheets to Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe and Otto Porter so that their teams would have to pay up for them. Ainge doesn’t have a history of doing that, but he does have a history of ripping off other teams.

For example, take the Milwaukee Bucks. Malcolm Brogdon will be on the open market this summer, and the Bucks cannot afford to lose him. Should Ainge give him a max contract, the Bucks would have no choice but to match it since they want to stay a contender with Giannis. There are plenty of scenarios like this. He could do this with Khris Middleton. He could do this with Vucevic. He could do this to anyone who is valuable to get paid a lot, but not enough that he would deserve a max.

The Celtics are going through pretty much their worst nightmare right now, but losing their star players is more of a setback than a doomsday scenario. If there’s one man who has shown that he can rebuild as quickly as possible, it’s Danny Ainge. They’re not going to get a star this summer, but counting out the Celtics is ill-advised because, like always, they usually have something up their sleeve.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Losers On Draft Night

With another year in the books, James Blancarte looks at the 2019 NBA Draft’s biggest losers.

James Blancarte

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For months it has been accepted that Zion Williamson would be the number one draft pick. Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett were also drafted at two and three as expected. What transpired after that was much less expected, including a few major surprises along the way. There had been rumors leading up to the draft that the New Orleans Pelicans, in possession of the number four pick after agreeing to terms with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Anthony Davis trade, would be looking to move the pick.

The 2019 NBA Draft is now in the books and we can take a step back and evaluate how things unfolded. Take a look at Ben Nadeau’s analysis as to who the big winners on draft night were. Whether any selected player lives up to expectations or is ultimately successful is something that can take years to determine. But, for now, let’s take a look at some who may have not had the best night.

The Phoenix Suns

The Suns started draft day by dumping forward T.J. Warren to the Indiana Pacers to be rid of the remaining three years on his contract while sending the Suns’ number 32 pick to help complete the trade. The frustrating issue here is Warren is in his mid-twenties, is productive, doesn’t have a toxic contract and can be very useful on a contending team. In another trade, the Suns moved down, sending the number six pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for power forward Dario Saric and the 11th pick. Saric is a useful player on offense and a good fit on the Suns who is now another player on the roster who will likely contribute to the team’s defensive woes. Also, moving Warren seemed to be about clearing cap space so the Suns could go after a player like D’Angelo Russell. However, taking on Saric’s contract cut into that strategy.

With the 11th pick, the Suns selected Cameron Johnson, a sweet shooting forward who figures to slot in extremely well as a compliment to franchise cornerstones Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, who both require the ball in their hands frequently to be successful. This pick shocked many including Johnson’s own teammate, Coby White, who displayed shock and enthusiasm for his teammate’s unexpectedly high selection. The issue for the Suns is that Johnson is an older prospect who is somewhat limited beyond his outside shooting, has had hip issues, which could be an indicator that he will have trouble staying healthy and he doesn’t have the same potential upside as other players in the draft.

Many projections had Johnson going as low as early in the second round. Imagine if the Suns could have had Johnson at their original 32nd pick. The Suns also traded a 2020 first-round pick (acquired from Milwaukee) to Boston to obtain the number 24 pick to get Ty Jerome and center Aron Baynes. The biggest and most puzzling part of this trade is that it cost the Suns much of the cap space they just cleared, presumably for Russell. For these moves to really pay off going forward, the Suns will need to maximize the cap space freed up in the Warren trade (and then somewhat given up) and find a way to shore up a team that sorely needs better point guard play and is weak on the defensive end. On a day that saw the Suns give up so much and saw so many other players go far below their projections, this day may sting for a while.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers also came into the draft with a high pick but, like the Suns, they were moved down a couple of spots in the draft lottery and were bumped out of the top three. Just before the draft, there was chatter about the Cavaliers moving out of the fifth pick in a possible trade. Ultimately, with the Hawks jumping up to take De’Andre Hunter at four, the Cavaliers selected Darius Garland, after he had been slotted at fourth in many mock drafts.

A talented shooter and isolation-based scorer, Garland has a high potential ceiling due to his offensive capabilities. The issue is team fit. The Cavaliers are still rebuilding following LeBron James’s departure and until draft day only had one foundational talent in Collin Sexton. Garland and Sexton will likely occupy much of the same space on offense and don’t complement each other based on their preferred style of play.

Garland is a good player and the Cavaliers can still make this work but considering the value that other teams were able to extract for moving down in the draft (see Pelicans; not the Suns), it is a shame that the Cavaliers didn’t use the opportunity to move down and possibly add additional assets in a trade or perhaps select a better fitting prospect.

Bol Bol

Being drafted in the NBA is a blessing. Period. Of course, expectations are relative and being drafted lower than is widely expected is disappointing. Going lower also comes with fewer contractual guarantees and decreased pay. Bol Bol might still have a productive career but many projected him as a possible lottery pick or at least a late first-rounder. Conversations about Bol leading up the draft did not appear positive and his stock seemed to be falling. Even still, Bol slipping to 44 to Denver still came as a shock. Of all players in attendance, Bol was also the last person to be selected. By the time his name was called, he left his table and awaited off stage, still hoping to be drafted.

Without immediate pressure or need to play him in Denver, Bol should have the time he needs to focus on any health issues and develop physically. It is possible that his foot and possible knee issues are worse than is widely reported. Perhaps issues with his durability, extremely light frame and potential for re-injury outweighed the shot blocking, shooting and offensive creativity Bol displayed in his one injury-shortened season in Oregon.

Many other players went far below their projections. Nassir Little fell to the Portland Trail Blazers, which is actually a favorable fit for him. Tacko Fall fell out of the draft, although there have always been limitations to his game that made him a more limited prospect. Still, Bol’s drop stood out as one of the top stories. While the odds are against players drafted this low, Bol could make news again should he succeed and prove doubters wrong.

 

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