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The Lakers Have Finally Stabilized

After a tough five-year period filled with loss and disappointment, the Lakers have finally put themselves back in a position to succeed.

Matt John

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On paper, missing the playoffs for the fifth year in a row would rarely be considered impressive, but for the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that’s suffered pretty much nothing but misery over the last half-decade, this season was a sign of progress.

Leading up to this past season, the previous four years overall were anything but easy on the Lakers. Besides consistently being one of the worst teams in the league, some of the team’s high lottery picks, such as D’Angelo Russell, did not pan out as well as they had hoped, and management baffled the fanbase when they signed both Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to approximately $140 million combined over four years.

This season, things finally took a turn for the better. The team’s youngest players, particularly Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Lonzo Ball, started to yield positive results. The team’s new acquisitions, specifically Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and briefly Isaiah Thomas, made a notable impact on the season. Second-year head coach Luke Walton proved himself to be up for the job with improved personnel at his arsenal. That may have led to only 35 wins, but compared to the previous four seasons’ final results, 35 wins is about as good as the Lakers could have hoped for.

And it should only get better from here. The biggest positive is that the team’s long-term outlook is now the brightest its been since Dwight Howard skipped town in 2013. Their impending return to the glory days is still up in the air, but the Lakers can finally look forward to a promising future for two reasons.

Cap Flexibility

When the Lakers replaced Mitch Kupchak with Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to run the team, the two of them went to work right away. Pelinka and Johnson knew that if the Lakers were going to attain relevance again, they had to undo the franchise’s previous mistakes, even if it meant getting rid of some of their young talent.

It’s as the old saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

Making said omelet started with getting rid of their albatross contracts. The Lakers found a taker for Mozgov when they traded him to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez’s expiring deal, but that deal also required trading Russell. Mid-season, the Lakers found a taker for Jordan Clarkson when they traded him to Cleveland, but that deal also required trading Larry Nance Jr.

Losing Russell and Nance Jr, and to some degree Clarkson, may have been tough cheese to swallow, but with Mozgov and Clarkson off the payroll, the Lakers have a ton of cap space at their disposal. In fact, this summer, the Lakers have only $34.5 million in guaranteed contracts, which will be the lowest payroll in entire NBA. This is a much bigger deal now that it’s been in the past for one simple reason: Hardly any teams will have cap room this summer.

The NBA salary cap’s drastic rise in 2016 caused many teams to overshoot their mark over the past two off-seasons. Because of that, quite a few teams will be paying the luxury tax while others will do everything in their power to avoid the luxury tax. This means that only a select few teams will have cap room to add a free agent on a max deal. The Lakers, on the other hand, have the cap room to add two.

Their situation only gets better given the competition in free agency. Most of the other teams that have cap room are in rebuilding mode, so the Lakers shouldn’t expect many competitors in their chase for marquee free agents ie LeBron James and Paul George this summer. The only other team that will be competing for their services with available cap space is Philadelphia, who only has $44 million on payroll this summer. Houston will also be in the race, but they will have to get creative if they hope to add a max free agent this summer plus keep Chris Paul AND Clint Capela.

Even if the Lakers whiff on LeBron and George, it isn’t the end of the world. They can afford to re-sign Thomas and/or Caldwell-Pope to one-year deals worth over $10 million because hardly anyone else can do the same. Even if absolutely nothing goes their way this summer, they’ll have flexibility again next season. While having cap space does not automatically mean free agents will come to the Lakers’ door next season, it’s better to have money available to offer than having to spend it on Clarkson and Mozgov.

Promising Youth Movement

Many knew the Lakers’ young core was nothing to sneeze at, but for the first time since they’ve started their rebuild in 2013, their youth movement’s talent finally translated into wins. They didn’t do it all on their own, but nothing makes a team’s future brighter than their young players starting to reach their potential.

That starts with Brandon Ingram. Ingram was the textbook example of raw his rookie season, but his sophomore year, he started living up to his billing as the second overall pick in his draft. Across the board, he improved his numbers, but his shining moment came when the Lakers turned to him to run the point with Lonzo Ball out in late-January. During that stretch, the Duke alum averaged 18.4 points on 52 percent shooting including 46 percent from three, 5.4 assists, and 5.5 rebounds. Ingram struggled mightily with injuries after that, but his vast improvement should be very beneficial in the long run.

Then there was the biggest surprise of the season: Kyle Kuzma. When the deal was first agreed to, Kuzma was originally a throw-in when the Lakers traded Mozgov and Russell for Lopez, but knowing Brooklyn’s luck, Kuzma may wind up being the best player in this deal. Kuzma wowed the fans at the Staples Center, as he averaged 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 45 percent from the field. Since Kuzma is only 22 years old, there’s no telling what his ceiling might be.

Then there’s the first lottery pick the Lakers drafted in their rebuild: Julius Randle. Randle got himself in the best shape of his life in preparation for this season, and it paid off on the court. Randle averaged career-highs in both point average (16.1) and field goal percentage (58 percent), but his best stretch came in February through March. In that time, Randle averaged 21.2 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. Randle is a restricted free agent this year, but with the lack of available money this summer, his best option may be to stay in LA.

Finally, the biggest wild card of the Lakers’ young talent: Lonzo Ball. Ball was both injury-riddled and inconsistent his rookie year, but he showed flashes every now and again of the player his humble father said he would be. While he had his issues putting the ball in the bucket, Ball’s much-hyped passing translated in the NBA, averaging 7.2 assists a game, and his rebounding was terrific given his size, as he averaged 6.9 rebounds a game. The jury is still out on Ball, but he should be given a full season before anyone comes to judgment.

In short, the Lakers’ cap flexibility and promising youth movement give them stability that not many believed they would have had at the end of last season. Inadequacy and incompetence have plagued the Lakeshow for the past several years, but now that they’ve brought the right people aboard, they are now pointed in the right direction.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Kawhi Leonard Would Look Good In a Knicks Uniform… In 2019

The Knicks need to take a page out of the Sixers’ book… and trust the process.

Moke Hamilton

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Don’t get me wrong, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving would both look great in New York Knick uniforms.

Just not now. 

Let’s be frank—only a fool does the same thing over and over and expects different results.

Seven years ago, the Knicks the made mistake of trading their farm for a superstar caliber small forward. His name is Carmelo Anthony, and we all know how that story ended.

If you want to make the argument that Leonard is a better player than Anthony was at 27 years old, that’s your right, but one thing that not even Max Kellerman could argue is that smart teams simply don’t trade assets for players they could ultimately end up getting for free. That’s exactly why Paul George spent last season flanking Russell Westbrook instead of arguing with LaVar Ball.

So if Leonard or Irving wants to eventually take up residence in New York City, they can prove it. In 2019.

If there’s one thing the Knicks historically imprudent front office should have learned from Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, it’s that. This summer, after hiring David Fizdale, Scott Perry will have another opportunity to prove that the job at Penn Plaza isn’t too big for him, so it’ll be interesting to see whether he even publicly entertains the idea of attempting to make a splash or if he continues to hold steadfast to the belief that there are not shortcuts on the route to contention.

The right play for the Knicks this summer is to follow the route that the Lakers took as it relates to Paul George—refrain from dealing valuable assets for players that you could sign for free. Danny Ainge hit home runs with Gordon Hayward and Al Horford and by essentially adding those talented players to an existing core of young talent—and more importantly, refraining from acquiring either via trade—the Celtics now have an embarrassment of riches.

The Knicks don’t have those kinds of problems, and as it stands, have little aside from Kristaps Porzinigis going for them. With the Latvian unicorn expected to miss the majority of next season, they’ll probably have a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. That could be paired nicely with Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and the ninth overall pick that they’ll have in the 2018 draft.

In other words, one year from now, the Knicks will have four of their own lottery picks under contract—Porzingis, Ntilikina, and whichever players they will have selected in 2018 and 2019. Between now and then, the team would be best served scouring the G-League and overseas markets to find cheap help that can contribute at the NBA level. Let the young guys play, let them develop and then carry them into the summer of 2019 with a clear plan in place.

That type of prudent management will not only help the Knicks in the long run, it will go a long way toward convincing soon-to-be free agents and player agents that Perry and his staff actually know what they’re doing.

If they play things right, and if the team managed to unload either Courtney Lee or Joakim Noah, they could open up the very real possibility of being able to afford both Leonard and Irving as free agents in July 2019. Imagine that.

From where most people sit, Irving seems to have an ideal situation in Boston, and his entertaining the idea of taking his talents elsewhere seems curious, at best… But so did the choice of leaving LeBron James.

Irving has been consistently rumored as having real interest in signing with the Knicks when he’s able to  test the market next July, and depending on who you ask, there does seem to be a genuine level of concern in Boston that Irving could opt to take his talents elsewhere.

Growing up in the shadows of Madison Square Garden, the young guard knows better than most what winning in New York City would do for his legacy. At the end of the day, would one championship in New York make Irving a legendary figure among the likes of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? Probably not. But one thing we can call agree on is that winning in a single championship in New York would do much more for Irving than winning a single championship in Cleveland or even a single title in Boston.

As it stands, fair or not, history will always look at Irving as the “other” player on James’ championship Cavaliers team even though he was the one who made the biggest shot of James’ career.

And with the success of the Celtics this past season, truth be told, Irving helping lead the Celtics to a championship with the team’s current core in place wouldn’t necessarily cement his legacy in the way it would have had we not seen Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown show signs of being franchise-caliber players.

Because Irving is a shoot-first guard, he’ll continue to unfairly carry the reputation of being someone who doesn’t make his teammates better. Because of the circumstances, he’s now in a bit of a catch-22. He’ll get less of the credit than he’ll deserve if the Celtics manage to win an NBA title and more of the blame than he’ll deserve if they fail to.

Still, even if Irving and/or Leonard end up elsewhere, the summer of 2019 will feature other free agents including Kemba Walker—the only “true” All-Star caliber New Yorker in the NBA—and Long Island product Tobias Harris. Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kevin Love and Nikola Vucevic, too.

One thing we know for sure in the NBA: there will always be marquee free agents. The Knicks just need to do a better job of being able to attract them.

So this summer, if Perry wants to continue to earn favor with Knicks fans with even half a brain, the best thing to do might actually be to do nothing.

In other words, if the Knicks have truly learned anything from the futility of their recent past, it’s that they should try to be more like Magic Johnson’s Lakers than like the Knicks we’ve come to know.

So if word eventually gets to Perry that Leonard’s interest in the team is real, and if Irving decides that he wants to take up residence in his backyard to try to succeed where Patrick Ewing, Stephon Marbury and Patrick Ewing fell short, Perry’s response should be simple.

“Prove it.”

Either would look great in a Knicks uniform, but they’d look much better in a Knicks uniform in 2019.

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Ranking the Free Agents – Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues to evaluate the top free agents at each position. David Yapkowitz breaks down the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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This week at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at the top free agents set to the open market in just a few weeks. We’ve already covered the point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards. Now we check in with the power forwards.

There may only be a few power forwards who can probably expect a max or near max deal this summer, but there are quite a few guys that, for the right price, can end up being difference makers on a team next season.

Before getting into the actual free agents, here’s a look at what the salary cap numbers project to be. The NBA’s salary cap is expected to jump to $101 million this offseason. Based on that, here are the projected numbers for max contracts:

$25,250,000 for players with 0-6 years of experience
$30,300,000 for players with 7-9 years of experience
$35,350,000 for players with 10+ years of experience

Max/Near Max Guys

Julius Randle* – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $4,149,242

Julius Randle is definitely in line for a bigger payday this summer. The fourth-year forward turned in his best NBA season yet and was arguably the Lakers best player for most of the year. He played in all 82 games with 49 starts.

He put up career-high numbers across the board with 16.1 points per game on 55.8 percent shooting from the field. Most of Randle’s scoring comes in the paint where his “bully” ball type game has proven quite effective. He has an improving jump shot and at 23 years old, he still has his best years ahead of him.

He will be a restricted free agent, giving the Lakers the ability to match any offer he receives, but doing so could come at the expense of signing two max-level free agents as has been the team’s plan. It’s going to be an interesting dilemma for the Lakers as Randle most likely will attract interest right away from potential suitors thus forcing the Lakers hand early on in free agency.

Aaron Gordon* – Orlando Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $5,504,420

Aaron Gordon will also most likely receive a max or near max contract his summer. Early in the season when the Orlando Magic started out hot, Gordon was playing like an All-Star and even a borderline MVP candidate.

The Magic’s play then went rapidly south, but Gordon finished the season averaging 17.6 points per game, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists, all career-highs. At the beginning of the season, he displayed a much improved three-point shot. The Magic have tried him at small forward before, but he’s a natural at power forward.

Gordon is also a restricted free agent allowing the Magic to match any offer. At age 22, he should also have his best years ahead of him. For a team like the Magic, in need of talent and quality young players, re-signing Gordon is probably ideal. But it’s also important to note that the Magic have a newer front office in place, one that did not draft Gordon. It’s also possible that John Hammond and Jeff Weltman might want to shape the roster in their vision.

Above Mid-Level Guys

Jabari Parker* – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Season’s Salary: $6,782,392

Jabari Parker is perhaps one of the most interesting and intriguing names on the free agent market. A former No. 2 overall pick, as a rookie Parker looked like he was definitely part of the Bucks growing young core. Unfortunately for him, injuries struck him hard as he suffered two ACL tears during a three-year period.

This season, he struggled a bit to find a role with the Bucks. There’s no question that if he’s healthy, he’d be quite an asset to any team. He represents the new breed of power forward with a perimeter game. Prior to his injuries, he’d almost assuredly be a max contract guy. It’s a bit difficult to imagine any team willing to pay him anywhere close to that now.

The Bucks have the option to match any contract offer he gets as he is a restricted free agent. It’s conceivable that they would do so as it will probably take a massive offer to pry Parker away from the Bucks. It’s unlikely that any team is willing to go that high.

Thaddeus Young** – Indiana Pacers – Last Season’s Salary: $14,796,348

Thaddeus Young could be another intriguing power forward on the free agent market. The thing with Young is he has a player option he could choose to exercise and become a free agent. Never an All-Star, Young has been a steady and dependable player his entire career.

His numbers were a bit under his career averages this season. He put up 11.8 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting from the field and he pulled down 6.3 rebounds. Nevertheless, he remained an important part of the Pacers rotation, especially on the defensive end.

Should he hit the open market, there likely wouldn’t be any shortage of suitors.

Derrick Favors – Utah Jazz – Last Season’s Salary: $12,000,000

Ed Davis – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Season’s Salary: $6,352,531

Montrezl Harrell* – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Mid-Level Or Below Guys

Mike Scott – Washington Wizards – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Ersan Ilyasova – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Season’s Salary: $357,454

Trevor Booker – Indiana Pacers – Last Season’s Salary: $332,516

David West – Golden State Warriors – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Nemanja Bjelica* – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Season’s Salary: $3,949,999

Kevon Looney – Golden State Warriors – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Mike Muscala** – Atlanta Hawks – Last Season’s Salary: $5,000,000

Amir Johnson – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Season’s Salary: $11,000,000

Channing Frye – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Season’s Salary: $7,420,912

Quincy Acy – Brooklyn Nets – Last Season’s Salary: $1,709,538

*Qualifying Offer (If made, the player becomes a restricted free agent.)
**Player Option (The player has the choice of whether to opt-in for another year with his current team or opt-out to become an unrestricted free agent.)

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NBA Daily: Four International Prospects Worth Stashing

While much of the international buzz has fallen on Luka Dončić, there are four other overseas prospects worth keeping your eye on.

Ben Nadeau

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Image courtesty of eurohoops.net

Without fail, mock drafts come and go all spring with little mention of potential international draftees. It makes perfect sense. Not every overseas athlete can get the buzz of Real Madrid’s Luka Dončić — or, in most cases, even that of Élie Okobo and Džanan Musa, two international prospects with decent chances of going in the first round next week. Still, would it surprise you to know that seven international draftees were taken in the second round in 2017? Or that 2016 went one better and reached eight? In fact, 2015 saw 10 foreign-born prospects get selected after pick No. 30 — so this is a trend, not an aberration.

Granted, a handful of those draftees haven’t and will not ever play meaningful NBA minutes — but the point still very much stands. However, outside of those aforementioned three — Dončić, Okobo and Musa — even the most-educated of fans would be hard-pressed to rattle off four more transatlantic options. Luckily, Basketball Insiders has your back. Memorize these easily-digestible profiles to impress your friends and family during the NBA Draft — you can thank us later.

Additionally, three of these four players were recently ranked in Basketball Insiders’ latest 60-pick mock draft. For more insight, check out our consensus mock drafts here as well.

Isaac Bonga, Germany — Fraport Skyliners
Age: 18 — Height: 6-foot-9 — Position: SG/SF
Last Mock Rank: No. 39 to Philadelphia

By most accounts, Bonga will be drafted next week — so, admittedly, he’s not the deepest cut on this list. But if the German isn’t on many casual radars just yet, he should be soon enough. His statistics are hardly remarkable — Bonga averaged just six points, three rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in 2017-18 — but his physical measurements project him as a difference-maker. Standing at 6-foot-9, the 18-year-old talent has some legitimate playmaking abilities already. Of course, overseas highlight reels have proven to be misleading time and time again — but watch this timestamped move from last summer’s FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup and try not to get too excited.

Comparing Bonga to other size-aided court generals is weak at best, but he also boasts a seven-foot wingspan, shoots 92.1 percent from the free throw line and his on-court vision is noteworthy for a teenager. Bonga’s best individual performance of the season came against Eisbären Bremerhaven, where he notched 16 points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks on 2-for-2 from three-point range. Given his current stature, he won’t be limited to just defending one or two positions if he bulks up over the next couple years either. There’s no guarantee that Bonga will make it professionally in America, but there are some compelling reasons to take a wait-and-see approach with this capable youngster.

Rodions Kurucs, Latvia — FC Barcelona
Age: 20 Height: 6-foot-9 Position: SF
Last Mock Rank: No. 37 to Sacramento

Originally, Kurucs had considered coming over last season after scoring 9.5 points per game for FC Barcelona II. Although raw, the then-19-year-old was a projected late first-rounder for much of the workout process — but he ultimately opted to head back to Spain for another year. In 2017-18, his counting statistics improved nominally, but he finally spent time with FC Barcelona, one of Europe’s top clubs. Unfortunately, that’s also where things begin to get a bit tricky.

Between his allegedly expensive buyout and Barcelona freely swapping Kurucs between their two clubs to keep him away from visiting scouts, the Latvian is now widely seen as a second-round pick across the board. He had until June 11 to withdraw his name, but — perhaps knowing that things will forever remain difficult in Spain — is just going to make the most of a bad situation. Even with his up-and-downs, Kurucs is often a crafty scorer that can go both inside and outside with the ball.

Although Kurucs has two-way potential, make no mistake, the offense is the prospect’s bread and butter. As we’ve learned in recent years, the NBA will always find room for deadeye shooters and that’s what Kurucs may eventually bring to the table. The talent is here for Kurucs but his long-term NBA future likely depends on which franchise he lands with.

Issuf Sanon, Ukraine — Petrol Olimpija
Age: 18 — Height: 6-foot-3 — Position: G
Last Mock Rank: No. 57 to Oklahoma City

Qualifying as one of the more under the radar options, Sanon is a Ukrainian baller currently playing for Petrol Olimpija in Slovenia. In 2017-18, Sanon averaged six points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals over 20.2 minutes per game and presently projects as a combo guard. Although his professional moments have offered glimpses of an NBA-worthy path, Sanon made his biggest mark last summer at the FIBA U18 European Championship. In what would become his breakout tournament, Sanon averaged 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists over seven games.

During a slim two-point defeat to Turkey in the Round of 16, Sanon tallied 27 points, five rebounds, four assists, three steals and made three of his five attempts from deep. He’ll need to continue developing at the three-point line — he shot just 29.3 percent this season — but Sanon looks like he could be a viable 3-and-D candidate down the road. That said, like many international second-rounders, it’s unlikely that Sanon will come over for a few years at least. But if he keeps developing at this rate, drafting and stashing Sanon would be a shrewd move for any franchise.

Arnoldas Kulboka, Lithuania — Capo d’Orlando
Age: 20 — Height: 6-foot-9 — Position: F
Last Mock Rank: Unranked

Last but not least, there’s Arnoldas Kulboka — a long-ranged assassin with the numbers to back it up. In 2017-18, Kulboka went on loan to Capo d’Orlando of Serie A, a club with which he quickly found success. He was even named Best Young Player in the Basketball Champions League, a new, FIBA-led, European-wide competition. At the 2017 U19 Basketball World Cup, Kulboka averaged 13.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and two assists over seven games. As an athletic, microwavable shooter, Kulboka naturally goes through bouts of inconsistency — but when he’s on, the Lithuanian appears like a tremendous prospect. In the tournament opener against Germany, Kulboka dropped 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists on 5-for-8 from downtown. What else could you want?

On the flip side, during Lithuania’s quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Italy, Kulboka scored just five points on 1-for-15 shooting — so there’s certainly still room to improve. Given his NBA-ready range and his perfect fit in a modern offensive system, those facets alone make Kulboka worth considering. Regardless, success at the international level from an early age is not always an indicator of future achievements, that much should be obvious. But for a mid-to-late second rounder, franchises could do far worse than stashing Kulboka.

While there’s no promise that everybody on this list will even join the NBA someday, they’ve all proved that their names should be known heading into draft week. From former FIBA standouts to those with positionless potential, these four overseas standouts could be difference-makers in the forthcoming years.

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