A Busy Night in the NBA, Broken Down

Yesterday had an unprecedented amount of noteworthy things occur, in a variety of ways. LeBron came back somewhat unexpectedly, the Sixers man-handled the Warriors on the low, and of course, the Knicks dealt the best player they’ve drafted in a generation for a low-tier point guard and cap space. Without any more introduction, here is each of those stories in more depth.

A King’s Return

LeBron James returned from the longest absence of his career in last night’s game against the Clippers, an overtime game in which James played 40 minutes for 24 points, 14 rebounds, and 9 assists. One question, though: How irresponsible can the Lakers be? LeBron is coming off the most significant injury of his long career, at a point in his life where he’s up against Father Time now more than ever. LeBron is 34, and there’s more reason for precaution now than there has been so far.

Look around. Dwyane Wade is on his final year, and is a shell of himself. Carmelo Anthony wasn’t even good enough for the Bulls to keep him. LeBron can’t be looking at the people around him from his own draft class and think that it’s no big deal. Nick Collison is having his jersey retired. Chris Paul, who was drafted two years later but is only a year younger, can barely stay on the court for more than a month at a time, and was injured for the most important game in his career. Sure, LeBron is superhuman, but he is human. For a team that has aspirations to trade for Anthony Davis, they can’t mess around like this.

What happens if they trade all of the young players for AD and LeBron pulls a hammy? All you’ve got left Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley, Javale McGee, and Lance Stephenson. That’s your supporting cast for Anthony Davis.

Maybe LeBron was further along in his recovery than previously thought, but even so, if you have to lose one game against the Clippers to ease him back in, then so be it. While the Lakers won this game, they could have probably still done it if LeBron played just over 30. And even if they did lose, what’s the matter with that? The Clippers are a fine loss compared to some of the teams the Lakers lost to while LeBron was out. Maybe they needed to stop the bleeding, ASAP, but LeBron is going to need to be healthy for the playoffs, and 40 minutes a night on his first game back from the most severe injury he’s ever had, at age 34, is simply not worth it. This ended up pretty preachy, but who the hell cares. The Lakers are a very poorly run team at the moment and they need to wise up or risk being mediocre again with an injured LeBron, AD, and a gang of nobodies around them.

Mr. Brown’s Wild Ride

In the Sixers’ 113-104 win against the Golden State Warriors, Ben Simmons played what HC Brett Brown referred to as his best game in the NBA thus far. While he had a game that was undoubtedly fantastic, it was a pretty uncharacteristic stat line. We tend to imagine good Simmons games as 20+/10+/10+ since he’s so proficient at the various responsibilities he has, but Simmons had a fantastic scoring game, himself, while still initiating for others as he went for 26/8/6. Simmons and Embiid had 26 points each, and Curry and Durant combined for 66.

One extremely noticeable aspect of this game was Jimmy Butler’s struggle offensively. Nevertheless, he had a huge impact on the game down the stretch, making strong defensive plays and exploiting the gravity he creates on the court to dime up others.

Another very palpable facet of this game, as an individual observer and Sixers fan/writer, was how hard Brett Brown out-coached Steve Kerr. The lineups, as well as the elevated play of the whole bench, made life consistently difficult for nearly everyone on the court besides Steph Curry, and even he struggled in the 4th quarter.

Playing through your center is hard late in the game, and Brown’s recognition of the mismatches down low and playing Klay Thompson’s absence allowed Embiid plenty more room to work than he normally is allowed. He was fed the ball, allowed to take Cousins to work, and continued to get fouled which helped the Sixers keep the Warriors at arms length.

As I said, the role players really stepped up tonight, but Brett Brown’s ability to put out lineups that gave Embiid and Simmons rest (keeping them fresh in the final 5 minutes), without sacrificing defense or scoring, was an integral part of this win for the Sixers. Brown got to ring the bell after the game, as even the players recognized the impact his decisions had last night.

The Knicks Fucked Up

I really don’t have a clever title for this one. The Knicks fucked up, plain and simple. They gave up the best player they’ve had since Patrick Ewing who was still young and capable of improving for Dennis Smith Jr., a mid-tier point guard even within his own draft class, and salary matching contracts who they don’t even intend on keeping. All of this in hopes of establishing enough cap room to potentially sign two max free agents this summer. There’s only one problem, and that’s the fact that no free agents probably want to touch that shit-show of an organization with a 10-foot pole.

Sure, maybe the Knicks draft Zion, and sure Kyrie Irving could change his mind about staying in Boston, and sure if Golden State somehow doesn’t win the title this year KD might leave, but I’m saying right now: none of that is worth it. First of all, the Knicks might not get the no.1 overall pick. Second of all, Kyrie isn’t good attractive enough to attract other FAs to follow him if he goes. Third, GSW is most likely going to win the title, meaning KD is most likely staying the fuck in place.

Think about the kind of stuff that has to happen for the Knicks to have justified this trade. Golden State has to lose in the post-season (LOL), Kyrie has to decide he wants to leave a franchise that gave him so much free reign, AND the Knicks have to win the lottery. And even if KD does decide to leave (again, extremely unlikely if GSW wins) what makes NY think that KD would be interested in playing there? They’re such a mismanaged team it’s unbelievable. He wants to go somewhere he can keep contending for titles, and while the East is weaker, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Kyrie, KD, and a bunch of goons is any more prepared to win a title than Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, or Philly.

Long story short, the Knicks need to get rid of that entire front office if this doesn’t work out. If your name isn’t Zion Williamson, David Fizdale, or whatever free agent ends up going there (if any) you should be on the chopping block. There is absolutely no reason for this team to keep the daydream of cap space alive just because they’re New York. Brooklyn is a team that can capitalize off of a big market. The Knicks are so shitty that being in New York basically doesn’t mean anything anymore. Just think about that.

Anyways, this became a longer, more rant-y piece than I originally intended. But hey, when a lot of stupid teams do stupid things while the Sixers are turning up, I guess I have a lot to talk about.

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Anthony Davis Requested a Trade. What’s Next?

It didn’t take long for NBA Twitter to catch fire when news came that Anthony Davis was not intending to re-sign with the Pelicans, and was requesting a trade out of New Orleans. As the internet exploded with memes and speculation about his destination, one aspect of the story stood out to me. The Brow wants to win titles. This makes the trade speculation a lot more interesting, as it puts an unusual constraint on his potential landing spots.

This is not to say, of course, that this isn’t typical of stars that demand trades, but rather it’s abnormal in the sense that AD has made clear that winning championships is what matters, not money.

With that in mind, I began to wonder what other teams might be interested in taking a gamble on AD, specifically teams that haven’t already received a lot of attention as potential trade partners for New Orleans. For one thing, the Lakers could get outbid pretty easily, despite their more agressive interest in the trade. Another problem with the usual suspects is Boston, who can’t make a trade until Kyrie Irving is on a new contract (or is involved in the deal, which is also unlikely).

So unless the Lakers clear house, or the Celtics turn this into a waiting game, there are definitely other teams worth exploring as landing spots for AD. There are some important things to keep in mind when thinking this through, however. First, the path to a title, both now and in the immediate future, is easier in the East. Second, teams must be in need of AD’s services, both positionally and skill-wise, to really be interested in making a move here. Third and finally, do these teams have the resources to get this trade done? I can think of a few, but some are far more likely than others.

The Toronto Case

The first team that came to mind as a dark-horse trade destination for AD was the Toronto Raptors. First of all, the team has depth at center, but no absolute killer out there. Unlike Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and some others that fit the bill, Toronto could certainly benefit from having Anthony Davis both short and long-term. Would Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, OG Anunoby, and a pick get the deal done? Would Toronto be comfortable with that? Serge Ibaka is an interesting candidate, but his salary makes him harder to move and/or balance with New Orleans, and as a home-grown guy, I’d rather keep JV if I could.

If I were New Orleans, I would certainly be trying to get Pascal Siakam in the deal, but he has proven so valuable as a role player this year that I doubt Toronto would be super interested in moving him. With that said, a starting 5 of Lowry, Green, Leonard, Siakam, and AD would be one hell of a team on both ends of the court. Not to mention having such strong presences off the bench like Fred Van Vleet, Ibaka or Valanciunas assuming one doesn’t end up in the trade, and other competent role players to back them up, this sounds like a title team to me.

Not only would they be instantly a defensive bastion, but the on-court fit is better than you would probably expect as well. Kawhi and Danny Green are both efficient floor-spacers, Kyle Lowry is an assist machine, and Pascal Siakam can do more or less whatever you need at the 4. If I were AD, I’d be thrilled at this. No player on this team has an ego, it would be very easy to come in and be instantly embraced by the city and team, and that team could win a title this year and down the line as well.

The one downside to this for the Raptors is potentially disrupting the home-grown talent and culture guys that they have. But with a player like AD, I think that’s a chance you take.

The Portland Case

Another team that interested me in this thought process was Portland. They’ve been overdue to shake things up for a while, and they are a team that really is just one player away from being a contender, even in the West. The Trailblazers could try to move CJ McCollum, who for all of his struggles this year is definitely a player of value. He’s not enough to get the deal done straight up though, despite their near identical salaries.

Nurkic is also an interesting asset, and trading a center for a center would make the position fit easier, as well. It would be tough for Portland to get this deal done without digging into their depth a bit, but their depth isn’t going to push them above the 4th seed at best this year.

It’s been time for this team to try and push their ceiling up, and this would certainly be a good way to do it. AD is a top 5 player on both ends of the court, and with floor spacing that Damian Lillard and the other powerhouse shooters like Seth Curry and Meyers Leonard provide, AD would have all the room in the world to work down low. A starting 5 involving Dame, Aminu, AD, and players to fill in the gaps off the bench like Curry, Turner, Leonard, and Collins, I could see this rotation of guys making a strong run this post-season. The problem would be filling in the gaps at SG and SF, depending on who is involved in the trade, and what Portland gets back. Regardless, this team is well-suited to take in AD and instantly become a contender.

The Clippers Case

This final one is easily one of the least likely, as the Clippers have made clear their interest in Kawhi Leonard this off-season. However, they are easily capable of making moves that would open up two max slots in their cap room, and part of that could be made possible through an AD trade. Although Davis has stated money isn’t important, I can’t imagine playing in LA isn’t at least slightly alluring. Plus, he gets to do it without all of the drama and sacrifice that involves playing with LeBron and for the Lakers in general.

That is all an aside, though. The real question is, how much depth does LA have to cough up in order to get this deal done? The easy part is matching salary. They have plenty of players of varying skill levels on various size deals, all or most of whom are perfectly fair value. Would NOP be interested in Montrezl Harrell, Danilo Gallinari, and some picks? As cruel as it would be to make Tobias Harris move again, he is also an undoubtedly valuable piece on a very solid contract. Getting Gallinari off the books makes more sense, however, as it alleviates more cap room as well as providing a very convenient opening at small forward for one, say, Kawhi Leonard.

As young players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continue to improve, this starting 5 would only increase their ceiling even after adding two top 5 players in their prime. SGA, Lou Williams, Kawhi, Harris, and AD would be one heck of a lineup with plenty of upside and room for improvement. The best part of the Clippers is they have so many functional and valuable players, but none that are irreplaceable. This is a well-coached, consistent, and professional team that would be a prime landing spot for any marquis talent, but it would specifically would be a great spot for AD given LAC’s future plans and current situation.

The Conclusion

While I think it’s fun to imagine AD in green or yellow (actually now that I think about it, that’s the least fun thing I could do) there are certainly other interesting options that not only fit the bill for AD to go there, but also have interesting options as a return for New Orleans. If I were the Pelicans, there are certainly players I’d value on the teams I mentioned above more than I’d value any combination of Kuzma, Ball, Hart, and Ingram. So cheers, we’ve begun the next great NBA trade saga, so now all we have to do is wait.

Losing to the Cavs? Lakers Need to Make a Move or Risk Running in Place

Since the 2016 Finals, LeBron-led teams have done one thing and one thing only: spun their tires. Despite making the finals every year, there was clear evidence that the Cavs hit the ceiling of what a LeBron-and-the-peanut-gallery team can achieve.

Last night, the Lakers lost to the now 9-35 Cleveland Cavaliers, who were riding an 11-game losing streak, and were on the road at the Staples Center, in pretty embarrassing fashion even though it was a 6-point game. The Lakers were, of course, short LeBron James whose absence due to a groin injury was extended at least until mid-January. The Cavs, however, were short both Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr., both of whom are among the sole talents on this barren team.

This begs the question: Did LeBron leave the Cavaliers only to play with a team just as bad? Basically, yes, he did. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that it’s widely accepted that LeBron going to LA was significantly impacted by the size and profitability of the LA market, compared to Cleveland. However, the King’s absence has shown that the Lakers, without LeBron, would essentially be bottom-feeding in the West along with the Suns. To my best estimation, I’d say they would be lucky to break 32 or 33 wins.

So, if the Lakers want to make anything out of LeBron’s precious remaining healthy years (which are now jeopardized by the first major injury he’s sustained in years) then they need to make a move, and fast. There is no time to waste. First of all, they need to stop the bleeding during the remainder of LeBron’s sabbatical. Even if he comes back at full-strength, which is far from a given, then they will need to step it up to get themselves back into the playoff race. They are still barely above .500, but if you’re trying to stay in the top 8 bubble, you cannot and I mean cannot lose to the Cavaliers. There is a very, very reasonable chance that a team like the Jazz, Pelicans, or Timberwolves start knocking on the door of the 8th seed.

More importantly, LeBron is 34, and just sustained a pretty significant injury unlike what he’s seen in this stage of his career. They can’t wait until Anthony Davis is a free-agent to realize it’s go time. So, what can the Lakers do to get themselves an even competent supporting cast for LeBron?

First, the obvious move is trading for Anthony Davis. This, of course, implies that the Pelicans are interested in moving him, which is not likely with the current landscape. In fact, the Pelicans are more likely to be buyers than sellers in this trade market, but that’s a different story. Let’s assume that Davis requests a trade before the deadline. The Celtics, without trading Kyrie Irving, cannot trade for Anthony Davis. Now, if I’m Danny Ainge, there is not a single player that is safe in an Anthony Davis trade, but the important thing here is that Boston is unlikely to make a move until after this trade season.

Aside from his unbelievable talent, AD fills a lot of holes for the Lakers, specifically. Their defense in the paint is abysmal, and they lack a true starting-caliber center. McGee has been unreliable, Tyson Chandler is fine off the bench but is also old as dirt, so he’s not a guarantee going forward. Zubac is, like, fine if you’re a middling team. But are any of these guys going to take care of business against, say, recovered-Demarcus Cousins? Or more realistically, Rudy Gobert of AD himself? Doubtful.

Aside from his defensive strength and versatility, Davis is a do-it-all scorer who has positional flexibility to play with other centers or other power forwards. If you could somehow get the trade done without giving up Kyle Kuzma, which would be extremely difficult, there would be a lot of interesting rotations with him, Davis, and LeBron, not all at the same time, even. That would be an indisputable upgrade defensively and offensively, even if you lost some depth to make it happen.

If Magic could get the deal done by giving up Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, someone else of marginal value and a pick? I would do that, easily. Of course, if I’m New Orleans, I’d want Kuzma, and honestly there is little guarantee that Kuzma would mesh well with AD and LeBron, despite the fact that he’s the best performer of the moveable pieces.

The important thing about AD is that the Lakers cannot afford to wait until after this season to move for him, if they decide that’s what the move is. They will not win a bidding war with Boston. They simply won’t. They have more valuable assets, both present and future, and are arguably a more desirable destination in the Eastern Conference, and on a team where you aren’t playing second-fiddle to a balding 34-year-old, or watching Ingram, who’s playing like a mumble-rapper-Andrew-Wiggins, miss mid-range jumpers.

Another trade I’d be interested in as the Lakers front office is for Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic. The Magic may still believe they can slide into a playoff spot, but any responsible front office will realize that losing in the first round won’t help you much, when next year will be nearly equally as wide open, and just coast for this season.

The smart move is to become sellers in this market, for Orlando. Vucevic is a potent scorer, and he’s on a pretty modest contract at about $12M, although he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. This trade, for say, KCP and a pick, or maybe any one of Hart, Ingram, or Ball, could pretty reasonably be balanced. KCP makes sense as their salaries are pretty balanced, and they both would be off the books after this year.

If Orlando could gain a pick or a player under contract for Vucevic, who might easily leave this year anyway, would be a score. Even if the Magic might make the playoffs, which is a stretch in and of itself, Vucevic probably isn’t a part of their long-term vision.

I went into further detail with those two scenarios than I originally intended, but the general idea is the more important aspect of this piece than the hypothetical trades themselves: the Lakers cannot sit this one out. With this injury as a potential turning point in LeBron’s career, there is absolutely no guarantee that they will have any more chances to win a title. The Warriors are the most vulnerable they’ve been, and with the potential to lose KD or Klay Thompson after this season, next year is really the last possible year before we’re talking about post-prime LeBron.

If they want to win a title, in the span of LeBron’s contract specifically, there really is no time like the present. There’s always a chance that this team finds it’s rhythm in the post-season, as LeBron always does, but none of the young guys on this roster have playoff experience, and many of them (Ball and Ingram specifically) have glaring, exploitable flaws akin to those that get exposed in the playoffs. Even assuming all of that, if the Lakers don’t do too hot into the end of the regular season, they may be playing a Golden State, Denver, Oklahoma City type team in the very first round.

I may be beating a dead horse here, but if this team wants to avoid the fate of the Cavaliers, they need to do more than spin their tires in the mud.

Editor’s Note: I do think that if the Lakers happen to make a significant move, they will in all likelihood try to move Ingram. This is mostly due to fit,    as Ingram is just the odd-man out. He’s too inefficient to play in a team with, hypothetically, LeBron        and AD. Kuzma is too valuable as a role player, and Lonzo is actually the ideal point-guard for a LeBron team, for all of his faults. 

Christmas Game Reactions: Lakers, Sixers, and More

The NBA Christmas Day games were as interesting as the league could possibly have hoped. The prime-time games, especially, were more close than I think most would have expected. Bucks/Knicks was exactly as much of a non-factor as I figured it would be, which was why it got the bad slot. It was close, for like, a quarter? Which doesn’t mean much. Regardless, the good games were good.

Lakers/Warriors, and a King’s Exit

Beginning with the Lakers/Warriors game, the Lakers got off to a quicker start than I think was probably warranted. They led at the end of every quarter, and the Lakers’ role players showed up, with 6 players not named LeBron James in double-digits for points on the night. Notably, Lance Stephenson did so in only 11 minutes of play.

Speaking of LeBron James, he left the game early with a sort of dumb-luck groin injury, which was very akin to Chris Paul’s hamstring injury recently. Nothing gross, nothing severe, just the wrong motion at the wrong time and he was out to the locker room. The Lakers survived the patented Warriors 3rd Quarter comeback, and blew them out in the remaining time. With that said, LeBron missing any amount of time could set this team off of the track that they had found themselves on. Smooth sailing is a luxury in the Western Conference, and losing LeBron for even a week could spell stormy waters for LA.

The King will undergo an MRI soon, and more information on his condition will be available soon. He has beaten the odds avoiding any sort of major or recurring injury considering the amount of miles he’s taken on in his career, and while the injury didn’t appear to be anything severe, it could put a dent in his ability to play so many minutes for so many games from here on out.

Sixers/Celtics, and an OT Thriller

Pivoting to the Eastern Conference showdown, the Sixers/Celtics game was probably the best one on the docket for Christmas, both in terms of storylines and in terms of quality of the game itself. Embiid exploded against a team that historically has shut him down, but some of the bench players went absolutely cold, preventing the Sixers from properly capitalizing on the gravity that JoJo created.

My one reason for optimism as a Sixers fan (other than this being a close loss in hostile territory and Kyrie putting up the best Celtic performance in more than a decade) is that the Sixers brought themselves back into a game that looked like a shutout. After the first quarter, it looked like this game would go the way of the playoffs and opening night game in which the Sixers make a lot of errors, both forced and unforced, and generally struggle to gain footing. This was not the case, however.

Generally, the Sixers are much better at taking a lead and holding on to it than they are overcoming a deficit, especially against teams at a similar level to them in terms of talent. Usually, when they start cold they need to take risks to get back into it such as unnecessary 3-pointers, Embiid dribbling into double-teams hoping for a foul, and other things that are just unpredictable. However, in the Christmas game, they fought their way back into it in the second half through big defensive plays up and down the roster and fluid scoring. For a team with depth issues, especially against a team that’s among the deepest in the league, I was pleased to see them keep their head on straight and just play.

For a while, the Celtics did what they’re good at, and held the Sixers to arms length, surviving any surges to make the game closer, but eventually the Sixers built a near double-digit lead, despite being down as much a quarter or so earlier. At the risk of reading too much into one game, this was a big time game against a team that they have struggled against in the past, and they almost one even with a historic performance on the other team. They’re too good to feel good about moral victories, but I think from a mentality perspective, the team did the damn thing yesterday.

Rockets/Thunder, and James Harden’s Heroics

The final game I’m going to touch on is Rockets/Thunder, in which the Rockets survived a Chris Paul absence against a defensive powerhouse in OKC. Harden continued to put the ball in the hole at the most elite level the league has seen in a long time with 41 points, and backup PG Austin Rivers had double-digits in his debut. Safe to say Chris Paul would have scored more than 10 points, but for a guy Houston signed just days before, you can’t really complain.

The most important thing, in this game, was not Harden delivering a much needed win against a contender for the Rockets. To me, the most important thing is that Paul George is looking like the best player on this team, even in his role as a second option. Russ is supposed to be the engine of this offense, and Paul George is consistently scoring more, getting more rebounds, and guarding the perimeter at the highest level in the league.

It doesn’t quite matter who the “best” player on the team is, but I think it’s time Russ stops playing as if he’s Jordan. For all of the Thunder’s strengths, offensive selfishness could be their downfall. Everyone on this team is playing selfless around Russ, which during his MVP season was just plain logical. But if Russ can recognize his own shortcomings, especially in shooting 3-balls, he could do more to enable the people who help him out like Paul George, the quiet killer, or Steven Adams, who is possibly the most selfless player in the league with a killer hook-shot.

The moral of the story is, this team has found something special in the role they’ve developed for Paul George, but it could go south easily if the Thunder don’t play to their strengths, none of which are Russell Wilson taking almost five 3-pointers a game at less than 25%.

The Christmas day games are pretty special, and while I think some teams get in off name and name alone (looking at you, Knicks) the roster of contending teams put teams in a place of high regard by the league, both in terms of strength and entertainment value.