The Lakers won this off-season.
When you acquire an all-time great still reasonably in his prime, you are deemed the winner. It doesn’t matter what place you’re in, or what else you add in the off-season. Adding LeBron James is the ultimate trump card. No pun intended.
As for the other moves the Lakers have made, well, it’s complicated. Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson have wisely given the other players they’ve added this summer one-year deals to not interfere with their cap flexibility next season. But, with all the players they added besides LeBron this summer, their roster makeup can be summarized in one word: Unorthodox.
There are going to be a lot of questions surrounding the Lakers roster this season. Who is going to be in the starting five? Who will they play in crunch time? How will Luke Walton manage so many big egos in that locker room?
Among the many questions that they already have, there is one that may need to be resolved as quickly as possible for the Lakeshow: What are they going to do about their current center situation?
The Lakers have an intriguing collection of talent in positions 1-4, but at the 5, the Lakers are quite shallow. They currently have three players that can play the 5 position at the moment but all come with a red flag. The red flag is either he’s a rookie (Moe Wagner), he’s largely unproven (Ivica Zubac) or he’s JaVale freakin’ McGee (JaVale McGee), which could spell a lot of trouble if they don’t resolve this.
Unfortunately, the open market has almost completely dried up. With Trevor Booker now off the market, the Lakers’ best remaining options are Greg Monroe, David West, and Brandan Wright.
Those aren’t the worst backup bigs, but they aren’t any better than what the Lakers already have. Hope is not lost for the Lakers, however, because they have an ace in the hole named Luol Deng.
I’m dead serious. Kind of.
Deng has little value as a player. Since joining LA, Deng’s numbers have gone down the toilet. His decline, combined with him slated to make 18 million dollars this season, makes his contract an albatross.
Trading him would be tough, but it is doable now that Deng has only two years left on his deal. If they play their cards right, the Lakers can trade Deng for a big who could at least be an upgrade over what they have now. They can do this in two different ways.
The first option for the Lakers would be to trade their horribly overpaid wing for a horribly overpaid center. They wouldn’t get out of Deng’s contract, but at least they’d be overpaying for someone who fills a need, which Deng does not.
Who could that be? Well, let’s take a look at the albatrosses the Lakers could target.
Overpaid but productive centers
Tristan Thompson: Thompson has had his issues, but he is at the very least a proven commodity. The reason why the Lakers might look to trade for him is his familiarity with LeBron. When motivated, Thompson provides a good presence on the interior, as his rebounding and defense can come in quite handy for a team that has LeBron James, as evidenced by their success together in Cleveland.
This would be all contingent on Cleveland blowing their roster up, which they haven’t done yet. Don’t expect Thompson to go anywhere if Cleveland is still trying to win post-LeBron, but if they decide to rebuild, then Thompson would be something to look at if they trade Deng for him.
Bismack Biyombo: Biyombo is a quality shot-blocker and rebounder given the minutes he’s played. Averaging 5.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks all while shooting 52 percent from the field isn’t too shabby for a guy who played 18 minutes a game last year.
Biyombo is also in the middle of a logjam at the five in Charlotte. They have him, Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, and Willy Hernangomez to split time at center, which could make Biz the odd man out in that group. If the Lakers were to trade for him, he wouldn’t have the same problem and his role would be pretty similar to the one he had in Toronto: Rebound and block shots.
John Henson: In 26 minutes a game this season, Henson was adequate, averaging 8.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 14 blocks while shooting 57% from the field. He’s not grossly overpaid like the previous two mentioned, but he’s not likely to play as many minutes given the Bucks’ current roster.
By adding Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova and developing Thon Maker, the Bucks are clearly emphasizing that they want shooting in their frontcourt, which means that Henson is likely to be phased out. Acquiring Henson is an upgrade and could save the Lakers money, but it would also potentially mean they’d have to give up a little more to get him. Deng’s skill set would fit what the Bucks are trying to do, but they’d be more hesitant to swallow his contract.
Those are not exactly the best names, but they fill a need and the Lakers wouldn’t have to give up much besides Deng for them.
There is another option for the Lakers. If they really are desperate to get off Deng’s contract, they could throw in some value to trade Deng for a center who has a large expiring contract. That would most definitely require throwing in a first-round pick(s), but since 2019’s free agency is going to be loaded with talent, that might be a risk worth taking. It’d be killing two birds with one stone. Also, since the following centers will be playing for the next contract, the effort won’t be a problem.
“Two Birds With One Stone” Centers
Robin Lopez: With Wendell Carter added to a rebuilding team that values shooting, Robin Lopez doesn’t appear to be part of the Bulls’ future plans past this season. Trading Deng to Chicago would be a tad awkward given the rocky end between the two of them during Deng’s first tenure, but if they stretched his contact, it’d be no skin off anyone’s nose.
Though his rebounding numbers dwindled, Lopez is a solid defender for his size and he averaged a career-high 11.8 points a game last season. His role would be more defined on the Lakers, plus, how many teams can say that they employed both the Lopez twins at one point in their careers?
Nikola Vucevic: Vuc is also likely to see reduced minutes this season to make room for Orlando’s newest young center, Mo Bamba. By drafting Bamba, it’s clear that Vucevic’s days in Orlando are numbered. Since Orlando is bound for even more rebuilding, they may be willing to absorb Deng for Vuc if it means getting another asset.
Vucevic does not have the same reputation as some of the others listed defensively, but he is the best offensive option on this list. Vucevic has a great arsenal of moves on the offensive side of the ball, as he averaged 16.5 points and 9.2 rebounds on 47.5 percent shooting. His half-decent three-point shot – shot 31 percent from three – could also help fill the void that Brook Lopez left. Vucevic for Deng does not work straight up, but adding Jerian Grant or D.J. Augustin would do the trick.
Dewayne Dedmon: Unlike the other teams mentioned on this list, Atlanta has made deals both to take in and relinquish long-term contracts to aid their rebuild, so they would be a realistic destination.
Dedmon’s skill set would fit in well with what the Lakers are doing. He’s an athletic 5 who can rebound and shoot from distance. He has proved in the past how useful he can be when he is playing for a good team, so the Lakers would be foolish to not look into him. Deng for Dedmon does not work straight up, but if the Lakers would be down for a Jeremy Lin reunion, then a deal could be struck.
Now if the Lakers think they are fine the way they are, then who am I to argue? Luke Walton has so far proven that he knows what he’s doing, so he could get creative with who else they play at center. With all the versatility they added, they might try playing LeBron or Brandon Ingram at the 5 in small-ball groups. Those hypothetical lineups could very well prove successful, but small-ball shouldn’t be played throughout the entire game.
And hey, if all else fails, Timofey Mozgov is probably available…
NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.
In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.
At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.
The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.
There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots.
A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks.
Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.
More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter.
But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic?
It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.
Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.
NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track
D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.
D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.
Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.
Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.
The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.
COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.
The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.
Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).
Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?
Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.
Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.
Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.
On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.
Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).
But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.
At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.
And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.
To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.
So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.
NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?
Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.
Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.
It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.
Goga Bitadze and Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated discussion.
Myles Turner and multiple other players got involved to attempt to break up the confrontation. pic.twitter.com/9Xr96HmJg8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 6, 2021
We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.
The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.
If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.
In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.
TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be
Report: Mike D’Antoni ‘leader in the clubhouse’ to become the next Pacers head coach https://t.co/42Ik5nPTyU
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) May 6, 2021
Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.
Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.
For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.
There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.
That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.
Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.
Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.