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NBA PM: Lakers’ Struggles a Necessity

The Los Angeles Lakers’ current struggles happen to be exactly what they need to return to prominence.

Yannis Koutroupis

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Lakers’ Struggles a Necessity

At 0-5 the Los Angeles Lakers are off to their worst start since leaving Minneapolis, yet as each loss makes history in the wrong way, it also creates hope for the future that they actually need more than wins right now.

The Lakers have been notorious for reloading quickly rather than rebuilding, especially since the start of the Kobe Bryant era back in 1996. They missed the playoffs just once after trading away Shaquille O’Neal, the league’s most dominant presence at the time, in 2005. Two years later, they were back in the Finals thanks to the acquisition of Pau Gasol and the development of Andrew Bynum.

After missing the playoffs last year for just the fifth time since their move from Los Angeles in 1960, the Lakers had hopes of another quick reloading period this offseason by trying to lure Carmelo Anthony away from Big Apple. For years they privately planned to go after LeBron James, but knew before free agency even started that they weren’t going to be strongly considered by the league’s top player, who was choosing exclusively between the Miami HEAT and Cleveland Cavaliers – not giving other teams any type of serious consideration other than cordial meetings with his agent. They also showed interest in Chris Bosh, but Anthony was always the most obtainable target – and they almost had him. Anthony, who originally wasn’t even going to meet with the Lakers because of their state at the time, left their pitch meeting sold on his ability to succeed there. Gasol was going to re-sign if Anthony made the cross country move, but in the end the money and potential to succeed so close to his hometown with the New York Knicks was too great for Anthony to pass on.

With Anthony’s decision to stay put, and Gasol’s subsequent move to Chicago, a harsh reality finally caught up to the Lakers: They have to rebuild through the draft for the first time, because in today’s day and age in the NBA with the Collective Bargaining Agreement structured the way it is, quickly reloading the way they used to has become much more difficult.

Once a prime destination that all players in the league would love to play for, a good portion of the Lakers’ free agency luster has worn off due to the fact that increased luxury tax penalties strongly discourage the kind of spending they did to put together a championship roster in the past, they lack championship potential as currently assembled and with the way the league is covered globally today, players can become stars anywhere. Playing in Hollywood is no longer a necessity to become one of the league’s most popular players, look no further than LeBron James in Cleveland and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City for proof.

Looking elsewhere around the league at the construction of the other contenders and there’s a commonality between them that further proves building through the draft is the Lakers’ path back to contention. The Bulls, Thunder, Cavaliers, Spurs, Warriors, Clippers and Blazers are built largely off of players they drafted and developed. They had to go through some grueling seasons like the Lakers have last year and so far this year in order to acquire them, but it was really their only way to contention.

The Lakers got their first promising young player with All-Star potential since Andrew Bynum in Julius Randle from Kentucky with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft. Unfortunately, Randle broke his leg in the season opener and will miss the remainder of the season. Add in a top five pick from this year’s talented incoming draft class that is headlined by Jahlil Okafor (Duke), Karl Towns (Kentucky), Stanley Robinson (Arizona), Cliff Alexander (Kansas) and Emmanuel Mudiay (China), and the Lakers become a much more attractive situation for potential free agents, while having two young guys they can feature and build around in the meantime.

Their ability to build through the draft is restricted a bit since they gave up so many future picks to acquire Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. In order to keep this year’s pick it has to be in the top five, but that looks like a strong possibility based on current projections. They should draft in the first round regardless, though, since they are owed Houston’s pick from the Jeremy Lin trade.

“The Lakers can’t tank, though!” a lot of their fans are probably thinking to themselves due to their rich history and high expectations.

However, it’s not tanking when the potential to be good simply isn’t there. Without Randle or Nash, who are both out from the year, the Lakers went from being a middle-of-the-road team at best to one of the league’s most talent-starved teams.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently made some interesting comments in regards to tanking, questioning whether teams really benefited from it, given what you sacrifice in terms of team morale and building a winning culture as a result. That’s less of a concern for the Lakers, though, thanks to Kobe Bryant.

Throw his statistics (27.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 40 percent from the field, 30 percent from three) out the window. The heart, effort and intensity that he’s displaying every night while coming off the most serious injuries of his career and playing for a team that has zero chance of winning a championship is nothing short of applause-worthy. The wins may be few and far in between, but as long as Bryant is on the roster, losing is never going to be acceptable in the Lakers’ locker room.

“The thing with him, he plays every game like it’s his last game,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said to Baxter Holmes of ESPN. “That’s what you want.”

“Look, man. I think the most important thing is to understand the relentlessness that you have to play with,” Bryant said. “I’ll go out there and I’ll leave it on the floor, everything, and compete and be relentless and not be fearful of criticism or fearful of not playing well and missing shots. And that’s the same way I want the guys to play — Jeremy [Lin] in particular. Because he’s a really good player, man. And he’s just getting used to playing with that [expletive] attitude.

“Can I shoulder the load and these minutes consistently? Probably not. But every now and then it will be necessary.”

It’s important to note that the Lakers have had one of the toughest schedules in the league up to this point and that it does not get any easier anytime soon. They’re not losing because they want to (see: Philadelphia 76ers), they’re losing because the team they put together had a low ceiling to begin with and they’ve been decimated by injuries (we haven’t even mentioned Nick Young’s broken hand that has kept him out since the first week of training camp). They’re competing every night, but just don’t have the fire power to match up with most of the league right now.

This is one of the rare instances where a team could end up drafting in the top five despite their best efforts. And, it could help put another decade or so in between their next multi-year playoff drought, because with a top five pick, the return of Randle and Bryant looking like he could play well beyond what’s left on his current contract, the Lakers could become attractive to top-tier free agents once again, this time while they have cap room to spend. Without another top pick in the mix, though, it’s hard to see how the Lakers won’t go through another summer like the last two – which is what they need to avoid more than anything. Losing in free agency is worse than losing on the court for this proud franchise, and winning in the draft lottery looks to be the key to changing that. It has been for the teams who are contending right now at least.

J.R. Smith Suspended

New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith has been suspended one game without pay for striking Washington Wizards guard Glen Rice Jr. in the groin, it was announced today by Rod Thorn, President, Basketball Operations.

The incident occurred with 5:45 remaining in the fourth quarter of Washington’s 98-83 win over New York on Tuesday, Nov. 4, at Madison Square Garden.

Smith will serve his suspension tonight when the Knicks visit the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

D-League Announces Rule Changes

The NBA Development League today announced that it will implement new rules for the 2014-15 season, including an innovative coach’s challenge and an “advance” rule. Additionally, the league will increase the team foul penalty limit and extend a rule deterring teams from deliberately fouling an offensive player away from the offensive action.

The coach’s challenge enables NBA D-League coaches to initiate instant replay review of referee calls of personal or shooting fouls, including offensive fouls, as well as those plays that have been identified as triggers for instant replay. Violations such as traveling and palming may not be challenged, nor can continuations or act-of-shooting determinations.

To initiate a challenge, a coach must call a timeout and immediately signal to the referees that a play is being challenged. The referees will then review the event in question and determine whether to uphold or change the original call. The challenging team will retain its timeout if the challenge is successful and will lose its timeout if it is unsuccessful. Teams will be granted one challenge during regulation and another challenge in each overtime period. An additional challenge in regulation will be granted if the first challenge is successful.

Additional rules changes for the 2014-15 NBA D-League season are below.

• “Advance” Rule:

o Allows the team with possession to stop play, substitute and advance the ball to the 28-foot mark in the frontcourt without using a timeout.

o Each team will be granted one “advance” that can be used only in the last two minutes of the fourth period and one to be used in the last two minutes of each overtime period.

• Away-From-The-Play Foul Rule:

o An away-from-the-play foul is defined as any illegal contact by the defense which occurs either deliberately away from the immediate area of offensive action, prior to the ball being released on a throw-in, or both.
o If an away-from-the-play foul is committed at any point in the game, personal and team fouls will be assessed and one free throw attempt will be awarded to any player in the game at the time the personal foul was committed.

• Team Penalty Foul Limit Increase:

o Team foul limits will be increased from four per period to five per period before free throws are rewarded.

The 2014-15 NBA D-League season tips off Nov. 14 with an all-time high 18 teams playing for the NBA D-League Championship.

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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NBA Daily: Ujiri Leading Golden Era of Raptors Basketball

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has taken big risks in going all in for the 2019 season and – with a potentially shortened window – it’s the right move, writes Lang Greene.

Lang Greene

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The Toronto Raptors (43-16) are on pace for their fourth consecutive 50-plus win season and barring a collapse of epic proportions will shortly secure their sixth straight trip to the playoffs.

Make no mistake, this is the golden era of Raptors basketball. Period.

The easiest thing in the world to do is play a situation safe. Minimize risk and accept the near certain outcome. Heading into the season, as previously constructed, the Raptors were already on a trajectory to reach 50 wins and secure a playoff berth. However, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri made the risky decision to turn off cruise control and go all in on a championship this season.

The reason was simple – five straight trips to the Eastern Conference playoffs netted only one trip past the second round and some seriously embarrassing postseason eliminations. So sure, the franchise could have stayed the course with the previous roster framework, but realistic title aspirations were a stretch at best.

To begin the roster reconstruction, the Raptors traded All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, big man Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran guard Danny Green.

Green and Leonard immediately provided Toronto with championship heart and grit, something lacking from the team in year’s past. The trade was a huge risk for Ujiri with free agency looming this summer for Leonard (and Green) and having to say goodbye to DeRozan, a homegrown talent and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

Toronto rolled early this season and have remained near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but Ujiri doubled down at the trade deadline by acquiring former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-round draft pick.

In just over six months, Ujiri was able to acquire two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners while gutting his roster of familiar faces fans came to know during the team’s recent run to prominence.

The Raptors currently sit one game out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The moves are driving results and most believe the Raptors are legitimate title contenders. But the risk for the franchise is most definitely real. Gasol, Leonard and Green are all expected to hit the unrestricted free agency market this summer which could leave the franchise facing a real possibility of losing all for nothing in return.

The prospect of losing Leonard and Gasol would undoubtedly take Toronto from the top of the East to a club scrapping to even make a playoff run in 2020. Ujiri went all in for a title this season. Leonard’s future is uncertain and so is Gasol’s. But the prospect of truly competing for a title was too tantalizing to pass up after years of setbacks around playoff time.

Inevitably all teams must go through a time of rebuilding or reloading. Despite Toronto’s previous success, their window was limited in nature and closing rapidly, so you have to admire Ujiri’s daring to be great mindset.

For reference, the Atlanta Hawks reached the postseason 10 consecutive times from 2008-2017 but the franchise’s front office played it relatively safe during their run devoid of any major moves. The Hawks watched All-Star performers Al Horford and Paul Millsap ultimately leave for nothing in return. Atlanta’s rebuild is in good shape with guard Trae Young, big man John Collins and an additional lottery pick this season.

However, the team never swung for the fences during their run – something Ujiri wouldn’t let happen – despite the huge risks needed to be potentially a champ.

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