July 3, 2018, 5:47 pm
LeBron James might be the smartest player in NBA history. He’s always thinking the game one or two steps ahead, creating passing and driving lanes only he can see coming, and thwarting the opposition with early, disruptive defensive rotations – at least when locked in on that side of the ball, of course.
“He’s so ahead of the game right now, it’s not even funny,” Dwane Casey said in December 2016, months after James and the Cleveland Cavaliers eliminated his Toronto Raptors from the playoffs, and before they would do it twice more in even more devastating fashion, with consecutive second-round sweeps.
At 33, James isn’t the consistently nuclear athlete he was a decade or even five years ago. The jumper, though clearly improved, still comes and goes, and he doesn’t commit to playing in the post with any type of regularity until spring. The lack of sustained defensive engagement, even in the playoffs, is a problem that warrants more attention.
No matter. There’s an argument to be made that James has never been better, at the peak of his powers when most players begin sharply declining because his intellect has matched, or perhaps even surpassed, his unique combination of size, athleticism and skill. Did you notice the complete lack of concern that James, at 37, will fail to live up to his $41 million player option for 2021-22? Those crickets weren’t just an acknowledgement of what he means for the Los Angeles Lakers as a free-agent recruiter and brand ambassador, but also the certainty that his understanding of the game, ever growing, will allow him to wield the on-court influence of a superstar even as his physical capabilities start noticeably fading. James is as close to ageless as a sport like basketball allows its players to be.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka know that, and James’ minimum commitment to the Lakers of three years ensured they wouldn’t be forced to sacrifice the long-term for the short. Finally, a team could be grown and developed around him rather than pasted together on the fly. To be clear, none of the moves Los Angeles made in the wake of James’ agreement limit its flexibility going forward. The only player added in free agency this summer who will definitely be around past next season is James; one-year contracts, obviously, have no bearing on the Lakers’ ability to create max cap space going forward.
Still, it’s not like that heartening reality makes Los Angeles’ post-James free-agency binge much more defensible. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the best player among those additions, and it’s not particularly close. His performance as a shooter finally aligned with his reputation last season, when he hit 38.3 percent of his nearly six 3-point attempts per game. Caldwell-Pope isn’t a deadeye, and doesn’t have the shooting versatility of James’ former teammates like Ray Allen and Kyle Korver. He’s far more reliable launching off kick-outs and simple ball movement than sprinting around screens and letting fly without his feet set. Given his ability to capably defend both guard spots and even some wings, though, Los Angeles certainly could do worse than Caldwell-Pope as a backcourt starter.
But why the Lakers deemed it necessary to pay him $12 million less than 24 hours after free agency began is unclear. A competitive market for Caldwell-Pope never materialized publicly, and the lack of cap space throughout the league means it might never have. Regardless, his deal was announced less than an hour after James’, as general managers, agents and players found themselves frantically responding to the summer’s biggest domino falling earlier than anyone anticipated. Well, except Rich Paul, James’ agent and long-time friend, who just happens to represent Caldwell-Pope, too.
Paul’s chief responsibility isn’t building the best supporting cast around James. His allegiance in contract negotiations lies with the player he’s representing, and through that lens, Paul did well for Caldwell-Pope. But that dynamic doesn’t explain away Los Angeles’ extreme haste in coming to terms with Caldwell-Pope, nor its even more surprising agreements with Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo.
Ignore the endless list of questions about on-court fit and locker-room chemistry for a moment. After ending years of free-agency failure by bringing in the greatest player of his generation on July 1, the Lakers suddenly possessed the present-day cachet befitting their status as 16-time champions in the league’s glitziest and most desirable destination. No one in the league influences player movement like James, and Los Angeles used all of its meaningful cap space less than a day after he made his decision. What was the rush?
The Lakers’ urgency would make more sense if the players who committed to them were highly valued in a basketball vacuum, but that’s just not the case – for reasons plainly obvious to anyone who’s followed the NBA over the last decade. Stephenson indeed rehabilitated his career in a second go-around with the Indiana Pacers last season. After failing to catch on with a team two years ago despite multiple regular-season auditions, he re-established himself as a viable NBA player in 2017-18, if one who won’t ever be able to completely curb his worst tendencies.
At the $4.5 million room exception, though, Los Angeles surely could have done better than a ball-dominant, non-shooting malcontent whose main utility is his mild effectiveness defending four positions. It’s hard to imagine there was much of a market for Stephenson at that price. McGee, meanwhile, was had for the veteran’s minimum, an objectively fair value for a career-long question mark who flashed in the postseason playing a narrow, defined role for an all-time juggernaut. Someone would have given McGee his $2.4 million, definitely, and the Lakers were in need of a vertical spacer and shot-blocker.
Yet like with Caldwell-Pope and Stephenson, why lock him down so soon? Would earmarking a minimum space for McGee on Sunday, then perusing the pool of available big men over the next few days to follow really have risked him later turning it down?
At least McGee’s deal doesn’t complicate Los Angeles’ salary structure; the same can’t be said for Rondo’s. Logistical context makes his one-year, $9 million even more frustrating. Los Angeles renounced its rights to Julius Randle, who reportedly wanted to play elsewhere, on Monday afternoon, shedding his cap hold and creating $13.8 million in additional space. Literally six minutes after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke that news, he reported that Rondo had agreed with the Lakers.
Randle’s preference to leave Los Angeles was no secret; those rumors swirled well before July 1. It’s fair to assume, then, that available players were operating under the assumption the Lakers would eventually have an open eight-figure salary slot. All of that cap space wasn’t a surprise, basically, as evidenced by Johnson and Pelinka ostensibly negotiating with Rondo before having the space to give him $9 million. Maybe the Lakers did their diligence, only to learn Rondo was the best option to use the funds made accessible by granting Randle’s wish.
Succeeding deals across the league cast doubt on that possibility. Later on Monday, DeMarcus Cousins took the mini mid-level from the Golden State Warriors, a one-off contract that will pay him barely more than Stephenson. Avery Bradley would have fit snugly into Los Angeles’ cap before agreeing to a two-year, $25 million deal – only partially guaranteed for its second season, reports ESPN’s Zach Lowe – to return to the Clippers. The reborn Tyreke Evans, who shot a league-leading 40.8 percent on pull-up triples last season, got a one-year, $12 million deal from the Indiana Pacers.
Wouldn’t one of those guys have given the Lakers a better chance to compete this season than Rondo? Despite making strides as a shooter, teams still don’t treat him like a legitimate 3-point threat, going under ball screens and cheating an extra step or two off of him away from the ball. And that’s the other thing: Rondo, like James, is best utilized with the ball in his hands. James frequently bemoaned the Cavaliers’ lack of playmaking depth during his last two seasons in Cleveland, but Los Angeles has gone overboard in that regard, puzzlingly prioritizing ball-dominance over long-range shooting in secondary free agency despite the presence of James, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball.
There’s the development of young incumbents to consider here, too. It’s already been made clear that Rondo and Ball will compete to start at point guard. Stephenson will certainly cut into the playing time of Josh Hart, solid on both ends as a rookie, and perhaps Kuzma’s depending on how Luke Walton constructs his lineups. Only Caldwell-Pope and McGee fill real needs on the Lakers’ roster, which makes the signings of Stephenson and Rondo – let alone the timing and cost associated with them – even more confusing.
Unless, of course, someone uniquely familiar with each of Los Angeles’ latest free agents is pulling the strings from behind the curtain. On Monday afternoon, less than two days after James and Johnson met for three hours to cement the former’s future in purple and gold, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported the Lakers are “pretty darn sure” James, vacationing in Europe, approves of their subsequent deals in free agency.
James, basketball genius, has never been good at helping management fill out the bottom half of his team’s roster. He prefers veterans to youngsters, and routinely lets personal relationships affect his appraisal of a player’s actual worth. Isn’t it conceivable that James, extremely familiar with Stephenson, McGee and Rondo, signed off on their additions? Given his clout in the basketball world and the need for all franchises, even Los Angeles, to placate their superstars, it would be remiss to assume otherwise.
The Lakers still have just below $6 million in cap space to dole out, and are surely maintaining contact with the San Antonio Spurs regarding Kawhi Leonard. They aren’t quite finished this summer. But adding a sharpshooter like Wayne Ellington or versatile forward like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute won’t undo the mistakes Los Angeles has already made, and trading for Leonard might only exacerbate them. There isn’t a move left on the chess board that would change that equation; it’s difficult to fathom what one might even look like.
The Lakers have already won the offseason. Getting James alone drastically alters their immediate fortunes, and they haven’t given away any more long-term money. Signing Leonard, or any other superstar free agent, into cap space next summer is still very much on the table. But the fact remains that Los Angeles is no longer the blank canvass it was after James announced he was coming to town.
We know, for the most part, what the Lakers will look like next season, and why James is sure to endure frustration he might have been able to avoid if they’d taken a different approach to spending the cash not used on him. Why the smartest player in the league seems to have signed off on the deals that will inevitably prompt it, though, is another thing entirely.
June 5, 2020, 10:31 pmKyrie IrvingPG, Brooklyn Nets
According to Adrian Wojnarowski, Kyrie Irving (right shoulder) could conceivably join his Nets' teammates in Orlando when they return to play later this summer, albeit as an inactive player.
There was really never much of a possibility that Irving would return to action in 2019-20 unless the season got pushed back severely. After the arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in late February, the Nets tentatively said they expected to have him back in time for preseason workouts in the fall (which will now likely take place in November or later). That still seems like the likely scenario, even given the long pause the league was forced to undergo. Caris LeVert had shown flashes of brilliance again this season after he returned from injury, so he and Spencer Dinwiddie will evidently be shouldering the ball-handling duties when the Nets take the floor in Orlando.
Source: Adrian Wojnarowksi on Twitter
June 5, 2020, 10:09 pmKevin DurantSF, Brooklyn Nets
Kevin Durant (right Achilles) confirmed on Friday that he will not take the court for the Nets when they return to play in Orlando in late July and early August when they close out the 2019-20 season.
Given the extended pause to the current season due to the COVID-19 outbreak, there were many who believed the Nets could plausibly try to bring back both Durant and Kyrie Irving from their respective injuries in order to make a push for a championship later this summer. Evidently, Durant will remain out of the equation for the Nets as they look to close out the season on a high note. "My season is over," Durant said. The Nets currently sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and will have to maintain that position in order to avoid the planned play-in bracket to decide the eighth seed after the initial eight final "regular season" games. Durant has never seemed likely to play, even with the pandemic disrupting the season, and it seems as though he won't be playing for the Nets in Orlando. Much crazier things have happened, though.
Source: The Undefeated
June 5, 2020, 9:38 pmKelly Oubre Jr.SF, Phoenix Suns
Kelly Oubre Jr. (torn right meniscus) will be able to take the floor for the Suns when the NBA returns to play in Orlando on July 31, the team's owner Robert Sarver said on Friday.
This is phenomenal news for the Suns, as Oubre had really been having a breakout season for the Suns (18.7 PTS, 6.4 REB, 1.5 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.7 BLK and 1.9 threes per game in 34.5 minutes) prior to going down with a torn meniscus in late February. He was originally expected to miss the rest of the 2019-20 season, but due to the pandemic he has recovered and will evidently be fully functional for a team that currently sits in 13th place in the Western Conference. They will have quite the uphill battle to force their way into the playoff field in August, as there will only be eight regular season games played before the playoffs are set.
Source: Arizona Sports
June 5, 2020, 9:22 pmJonathan IsaacPF, Orlando Magic
The President of Basketball Operations for the Magic, Jeff Weltman, said Friday that the team does not expect Jonathan Isaac (left knee) to return when league play resumes, but that they will also be letting his rehab program dictate his timetable.
Isaac has been sidelined since the beginning of January after a serious injury to his left knee.
He was scheduled to be re-evaluated in 8-10 weeks but the impact of the coronavirus has muddled things up with many players, Isaac included. The Magic don't want to risk Isaac's immediate future, as he is under contract for one more season and is eligible for a qualifying offer prior to the 2021-22 season. With the Magic sitting in eighth place in the East and looking a (potential) fight for the right to face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs as the eighth seed in August, the Magic brass may opt to keep Isaac out until the beginning of next season. That seems likely, at least.
Source: 96.9 The Game on Twitter
June 5, 2020, 5:37 pmKawhi LeonardSF, Los Angeles Clippers
Marc Stein is reporting that the NBPA has agreed to continue negotiations with the league for a 22-team restart to the season.
Stein also noted that not everything is settled at this point, and more items need to be agreed upon before the NBPA is ready to sign and proceed forward with the resumption of games. It sounds like we're still on a path to an agreement, but the NBPA still has a few points to clarify before it is all said and done. Stay tuned.
Source: Marc Stein on Twitter
June 5, 2020, 5:29 pmLeBron JamesSF, Los Angeles Lakers
Shams Charania is reporting that the NBPA informed players that they will be tested on a nightly basis for COVID-19 and a positive test will result in quarantine for a minimum of seven days.
The resumption of play will also include 2-3 preseason games and a bubble of 1600 total people. Players will not have tracking devices on them but they are expected to stay in the bubble for the entire period. Everything is gradually coming together and the schedule for the return to play is becoming more and more clear for all parties.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter
June 5, 2020, 4:34 pmNikola JokicC, Denver Nuggets
According to head coach Mike Malone, Nikola Jokic has been staying in great shape during the lockout.
Jokic has never been known for staying in shape, especially during the offseason, and it will be a legitimate surprise if he returns lighter than he was at the stoppage in play. He started the year on the slower side and was clearly looking behind out of the gate, but he was back to his usual first-round value by the time games came to a stop. He should be ready for action when the lockout comes to an end. His teammate Jamal Murray is claiming that Jokic now has a "little four pack".
Source: The Athletic
June 5, 2020, 3:31 pmDejounte MurrayPG, San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs were dealing with injuries to LaMarcus Aldridge, Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl and Lonnie Walker IV before the season was halted, but all four are expected to be "good to go" when the NBA resumes action.
Poeltl (MCL sprain) was dealing with the most significant injury of the bunch, and if he's ready then everyone else will be as well. Aldridge was day-to-day with a shoulder strain, while Murray and his strained calf were the biggest headache for fantasy GMs before the season stopped. Initially given no timetable for return, he's ready to go and will split the PG work with Derrick White as the Spurs try to extend their playoff streak.
Source: The Athletic
June 5, 2020, 3:26 pmDarius BazleyPF, Oklahoma City Thunder
Darius Bazley has recovered from a right knee bone bruise that he suffered in February.
We're going to say that he's healthy after he was spotted playing pickup games this past week. Bazley was set to be re-evaluated 4-6 weeks after sustaining the injury and is good to go. He's not a lock to receive minutes in the postseason but more depth options never hurt anybody.
Source: The Athletic
June 5, 2020, 3:25 pmAndre RobersonSG, Oklahoma City Thunder
Andre Roberson (left knee) may be able to play in the NBA's eight-game regular season, per The Athletic's Erik Horne.
Roberson has been out since January of 2018 thanks to a ruptured patellar tendon and some subsequent setbacks, but he said back in April that he's past the rehab stage of his recovery. It would be tough to envision the Thunder granting Roberson a big role considering the severity of his injury and the length of his layoff, but there's a chance that the defensive stopper can make some impact for the team down the stretch. Either way, it will be great to see him back on the floor again.
Source: The Athletic