By now, you’ve probably read the ESPN article on Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, where he is portrayed as the overwhelming reason behind the franchise’s recent struggles. Citing multiple sources, the article claims that marquee free agents no longer want to play with Bryant, that ownership is resigned to the fact that they cannot build a contender as long as he is on the roster and that he’s just flat out hurting them more than he’s helping them at this late stage of his career.
Like all controversial things involving Bryant and the Lakers, it has quickly become the talk of the league.
There’s no denying that there’s a lot of truth in the article. Bryant has cost the Lakers in several aspects. He is not the easiest guy to play with; he’s demanding and downright overbearing at times. However, the chief complaint, especially from the West Coast has been the article’s singular perspective. It was written with the intent to place the majority of the blame for the Lakers’ downfall on Bryant, ignoring the multitude of things that could have changed the Lakers’ fortune, but didn’t go their way. In today’s NBA PM, we try to spread the blame around a little bit more evenly in order to more accurately depict why the Lakers are in their current state, because not everything is Bryant’s fault.
David Stern liked the Los Angeles Clippers’ offer for Chris Paul more than the Lakers’ – and rightfully so.
Some wounds never heal and this is still a very tough one for Laker fans to accept. For a couple of hours back in 2011, Paul (arguably the league’s premier point guard) was set to become a Laker in exchange for Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. The Lakers knew they needed to make some changes and they put together a package that Pelicans (then Hornets) GM Dell Demps agreed to, but because the franchise was under the ownership of the league at the time in order to keep them in New Orleans, commissioner David Stern had the final say. And, Stern, with selling the team in mind, vetoed that trade because he preferred what the Clippers had to offer.
Wanting to market the franchise as a promising one with young talent and financial flexibility, not one that is a year or two away from a massive rebuild, Stern sent Paul to the Clippers for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al Farouq-Aminu and an unprotected 2012 first round pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Gordon has been plagued with injuries, Kaman was gone in a hurry, Farouq-Aminu never developed and that draft pick turned into Austin Rivers, who has yet to truly establish himself as an NBA player, but it was still the right deal to do at the time. Stern was able to sell the franchise shortly after, and they now have a team that could be formidable for several years, not just a couple like they would have if they made the Lakers trade.
This set the Lakers back in a major way. Even if you want to say that Paul shouldn’t have been traded there in the first place, it sent shock waves through the locker room that the team was never able to recover from. Odom was so furious he demanded a trade and the Lakers were forced to trade one of the league’s best and most versatile reserves for a first-round pick because they had no leverage. Gasol’s value took a hit also; his stock was never as high as it was at that moment, and the Lakers were never able to find another favorable offer for him that they were willing to accept.
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement was created with evening the playing field in mind and taking away some of the advantages a preeminent franchise like the Lakers had.
If you’re looking for a Lakers guard to blame this issue on – it’s former starting point guard Derek Fisher, not Bryant. Fisher was at the head of the 2011 labor negotiations as the players union representative, while Bryant was a quiet participant in negotiations. He voiced his opinion and supported the players, but wasn’t directly involved in the institution of stiffer luxury tax penalties, downsizing of the players’ share of the Basketball Related Income or restrictions put on sign-and-trades – all things that have worked against the Lakers’ recent rebuilding efforts.
Max-level free agents are less likely to leave their teams than ever based on the fact that the team with their Bird rights can offer up to $20 million more than any competitor. And, unfortunately for the Lakers, they’re one of the few teams to lose a top star in this new CBA, but we’ll get more into the reasoning behind that later.
Lakers ownership and management, not Bryant, wanted to move on from Phil Jackson.
While Bryant and the Zen Master had their conflicts in the past, Bryant made no secret about his desire to have Jackson return when the Lakers decided to fire Mike Brown early in the 2012-13 season. Bryant, of course, was open to the hiring of Mike D’Antoni, who he grew up idolizing and had a good friendship with. However, Jackson was his first choice, but the Lakers decided to go with D’Antoni because they wanted to play a quicker pace and potentially have a long-term solution at head coach, not a short-term fix. Jackson was looking at the job as a one-year gig, while the Lakers wanted to find a permanent answer.
Prior to accepting the Knicks’ president of basketball operations position, there were calls for the Lakers to add Jackson to their front office as well. The two sides talked again, but ultimately with the proven Kupchak at GM and Jim Buss tapped by his late father to take over basketball ops, there was no room for someone of Jackson’s stature.
The Lakers were never going to choose Dwight Howard over Bryant, which may have been a necessity in order for him to stay on long-term with D’Antoni in place. But, it’s hard not to believe that Jackson, who was willing to help the Lakers recruit Howard to stay despite being shunned twice over the course of just a few months, wouldn’t have found a way to sway Howard and keep Bryant from clashing with him in the manner he did.
Lakers management rubbed Howard the wrong way also, not just Bryant.
It’s well documented that Bryant and Howard did not see eye-to-eye or have a great relationship. It was an infamous call from Bryant telling Howard how he could be his Tyson Chandler that initially rubbed the big man the wrong way, as he felt disrespected.
Hardly one to coddle anyone who doesn’t have the same, cutthroat approach to winning that he does, Bryant and Howard never became best of friends. The ESPN article went into detail over how Bryant’s “let me teach you how to win” spiel during the Lakers’ free agency meeting rubbed Howard the wrong way, but that was more the straw that broke the camel’s back than the overwhelming decisive factor in Howard’s decision. Remember, just weeks before that, Howard went to Bryant’s house personally to check in on him as he was recovering from a torn Achilles.
Howard’s problems weren’t just with Bryant, though. Howard and Kupchak had a much better relationship than he and Bryant did, but Howard was upset with Kupchak on three different occasions during his single season with the team. The first came with the hiring of D’Antoni. Howard did not share Steve Nash and Bryant’s excitement over his hiring. He wanted Jackson. In his opening press conference, D’Antoni voiced his disdain for true post ups, stating that he wanted Howard getting the ball on the move and working more as a screener than primary low-post option like he would have in the triangle offense. That never sat well with Howard, who was frustrated with the way he was used offensively all season long, although Bryant’s ball dominance did play a big part in that aspect. After signing with the Houston Rockets, Howard told Basketball Insiders that he had asked the Lakers to hire Jackson instead of D’Antoni during the season.
The second time came when Howard hurt his shoulder. He was shocked that after coming back months earlier than he was projected to from back surgery, the team was quick to question his threshold for pain and stated that when he can come back iss up to him and how much pain he can tolerate because their doctors cleared him. That put a lot of pressure, and negativity, on Howard, that remained fresh in his mind when choosing the Rockets over the Lakers two summers ago.
The third, and perhaps most devastating blow, was when the Lakers committed to D’Antoni before meeting with Howard. The coach who he had clashed with all season long and was uncertain about being the right coach for him was going to remain in place for at least another year. And, with Bryant stating that he’ll be playing for at least another three seasons, Howard didn’t see enough changes on the horizon to pick the Lakers over a Rockets team that provided him with everything he wanted right away.
The last big free agent Kobe helped recruit has been a colossal disappointment.
While the Lakers’ plan was to pair Chris Paul and Dwight Howard alongside Bryant as he heads toward retirement, they settled for Nash in place of Paul when that option was nixed. It’s easy to forget just how good Nash was before joining the Lakers. This wasn’t the case of the Lakers banking on an aging veteran being able to squeeze a few more miles out of the tank. Nash appeared to be at the top of his game, averaging 12.5 points and 10.7 assists with the Suns during the previous year. The Suns were very hesitant to let him go, but it was at the insistence of Nash that they helped facilitate the deal to the Lakers. At the time there wasn’t even a whisper of there being some reluctance from Bryant to buy into adding Nash, as ESPN reported. Nash was quoted as saying that Bryant was an integral part of the recruiting process, as he’s been throughout his time with the Lakers.
The Lakers have been over the cap for the majority of Bryant’s career, but he’s been a key recruiter for them, someone who has been able to help convince role players to take less to sign on with the Lakers and compete for a championship. The Lakers didn’t hide him in fear of him rubbing guys the wrong way. He was at the forefront of their recruiting pitch and he often helped deliver. Vladimir Radmanovic, Ron Artest, Gary Payton and Karl Malone are just a few of the veterans along with Nash who took less to sign with the Lakers. He was also key in helping re-sign key free agents like Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Devean George and Andrew Bynum when they were negotiating new contracts.
If Nash was able to fulfill the expectations that followed him to Hollywood, or even managed to be a serviceable role player, the Lakers would be a lot more attractive of a destination. Nash is regarded as one of the best teammates of the last decade and a half. His track record for making guys better and being enjoyable to play with is impeccable, but because of injuries that lust and appeal disappeared. When healthy, the prospect of playing with Nash was as great as the negatives that come with playing with Bryant. The Lakers were never able to capitalize on that and to this day continue to be set back by Nash’s inability to stay healthy. Bryant’s injuries worked against him while recruiting free agents the last two years as much, if not more, than his brash personality.
Pipe dream free agent signings weren’t any more likely without Bryant.
Let’s imagine for a minute that Bryant was unable to recover from his torn Achilles, never signed a two-year maximum extension last season and decided to retire this offseason. The Lakers would have had ample cap space to go after multiple top-tier free agents, but to think that the cream of the crop – LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony – were going to come take his place is farfetched at best.
James has made it clear that he wasn’t interested in hearing any team’s pitch other than the Miami HEAT’s and Cleveland Cavaliers’. Anthony, meanwhile, only entertained the Lakers’ offer because of Bryant. He wasn’t going to meet with them at all, but it was because of his close friendship with Bryant that he took the meeting and seriously considered signing with them. At one point shortly after the meeting, Anthony admitted he was actually leaning toward signing with the Lakers. In the end, Anthony opted to stay in New York, his home, and take the extra, extremely lucrative fifth year that they could offer but the Lakers couldn’t. Hard to recruit with all that working against you, but thanks at least partially to Bryant, the Lakers were nearly able to steal him away.
In today’s NBA, you cannot win with a singular superstar and you cannot recruit other superstars without one in place. As much as clean books seemed like an attractive option for the Lakers, the odds are greater that they would have ended up worse in the end than they are now than they would have become overnight contenders.
All franchises go through down periods.
Long before the Lakers were cursed by the presence of Bryant, as ESPN would have you believe, there was a clear precedence for even the most valuable, tradition rich franchises going through highs and lows.
The Lakers experienced it themselves in between the Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal/Bryant era, saw their longtime rivals the Boston Celtics flounder in mediocrity for the better part of a decade and knew that without a lot of luck and good fortune, they would probably have to go through it again in the post-Bryant era.
Despite their best attempts, that indeed looks like it’s going to be the case, but there’s a long list of things that went wrong, things completely out of Bryant’s hands, that have gotten them to this point. All of those things going wrong magnify Bryant’s hard-headedness and shortcomings, but ask around the league how many teams would prefer to be dealing with this trouble now in order to have the success the Lakers have experienced since trading for him on draft night 1996. You’ll be hard pressed to find a team that would pass on him, even with all his flaws and the benefit of hindsight being 20-20.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.