How did LeBron James’s deal with the Lakers go down? Actually, it was pretty simple, and that’s what both sides wanted.
Instead of a presentation showing how James could enhance his brand playing in Los Angeles, or breaking down the history of the organization, Lakers president Magic Johnson met with James one on one and talked basketball.
Johnson talked about how James could help the Lakers unseat the Warriors, the type of teammates James preferred to blend with his style, and the long-term plan to make the Lakers contenders again.
“It wasn’t that I chose to go alone. That’s what he wanted,” Johnson said this past week. “I talked to his agent, Rich Paul, [James] wanted to talk to me one on one. I was happy to go and represent the Lakers and talk basketball, talk strategy, talk winning, talk team, and talk players.”
The preparation process was comfortable for Johnson. He broke down years of game film on James — the young player in his first stint in Cleveland, the dominant player who helped Miami win two championships, and finally the player who teamed with Kyrie Irving to bring Cleveland its first major pro sports title in 52 years.
“I did a lot of research on his ball usage. I prepared that way instead of a lot of bells and whistles. It was strictly about basketball,” Johnson said. “I wanted to have a clear understanding so when I presented to him, he’d understand that I did my homework and it’s all about basketball and it’s all about winning. That’s what he wanted.”
Obviously, the Lakers’ long-term goal is to overtake the Warriors, and Johnson said he examined their playoff run for ideas on how to do that. The Warriors were in danger of losing the Western Conference finals to the Rockets before Houston’s Chris Paul strained his hamstring at the end of Game 5. The Warriors went on to beat the Paul-less Rockets in seven games.
Johnson also gave kudos to his biggest rival as a player — the Celtics.
“Houston really gave Golden State problems. They had workable guys who could break the defense down, not only shoot but take them off the dribble, and also on the defensive end, they were right there,” Johnson said. “And if I think of some of the teams that had great shooting besides Golden State, all those teams really got beat. Then you look at a team like Boston that had multiple ballhandlers, guys that could put it on the ground and get their own shot, they advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. I watched every series and understand the game is played different.”
So, that thinking was behind the Lakers signing former Celtic Rajon Rondo to compete for the starting point guard spot, and also adding the mercurial Lance Stephenson and former Warrior JaVale McGee. Along with the Lakers’ young core of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Lonzo Ball, there is hope.
“Now let’s get guys who can handle the basketball, get their own shot, also who are tough on defense, tough-minded, and that’s how Rob [Pelinka, the general manager] and I decided to build the roster,” Johnson said. “We’re really happy about the additions that we have, and LeBron is really happy. We’re building something that’s special.”
Before signing James, Johnson said if the Lakers did not bring in a superstar to LA within two years that he would resign. Even after signing James there is pressure on Johnson and Pelinka to bring prestige back to the Lakers after going five seasons without a playoff berth.
Johnson’s predecessor, Mitch Kupchak, tried fast-tracking the process by signing Luol Deng (four years, $72 million) and Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million). Those moves failed miserably and cost him his job. Johnson will not throw the Lakers’ money around. Rondo, Stephenson, and McGee were all signed to one-year contracts, meaning the Lakers retain their cap space next summer and could add another superstar.
“We’re not going to make mistakes by going out and making a deal just to say we made another deal,” Johnson said. “Our timetable is still the same, but if we feel like there’s somebody out there or a deal to be made to make our team better we’ll do it, as long as it’s a great deal for us. We feel really good about this team and then we’ll have enough room for next summer to give another player a max deal. We’re still going to stay disciplined and build what we feel and hope will be a team that could have a championship run for a long time.”
THE PLACE TO BE
League matters the talk of Vegas
With all 30 teams in Las Vegas for summer league, there were many NBA topics of discussion this past week. The biggest was the ultimate destination of Kawhi Leonard, who remains with the Spurs, though he has requested a trade, preferably to the Lakers.
The Clippers are interested in Leonard and are wondering what the Spurs are going to do. The Spurs watched the Cavaliers get the short end of their deal with the Celtics for Kyrie Irving, and they won’t make a hasty trade to appease Leonard.
The Clippers don’t have a lot of assets to offer the Spurs besides the expiring contract of Tobias Harris, perhaps first-round picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, and future draft picks. That’s not a bad package, but the Clippers have no idea if the Spurs are interested because the sides haven’t been talking. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford weren’t even in Las Vegas.
The future of Carmelo Anthony also was a popular topic. The Thunder have given Anthony permission to talk with interested teams in the hopes of facilitating a trade. The Thunder hope they can pull off a deal instead of having to buy out the final $27.9 million owed to Anthony on his contract.
The Heat and Rockets are interested, and it’s likely he’ll head to Houston. The Rockets lost two of their best defenders (Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute) in free agency and may now have to win more with offense.
There was also surprise in Las Vegas concerning the four-year, $37.2 million contract the Grizzlies gave to Kyle Anderson. In his first season as a starter, Anderson averaged 7.9 points and shot 52.7 percent from the field in a career-high 26.7 minutes per game. But his career scoring average is 4.9 points and he didn’t experience a breakout until his fourth year. But the Grizzlies’ analytics staff loves how Anderson fits into a roster with Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Jaren Jackson, Dillon Brooks, and Chandler Parsons.
all iS well
Silver, Roberts see no problems
Commissioner Adam Silver continues to field questions about league parity and competitive balance since the Warriors have won three of the last four championships and recently added All-Star DeMarcus Cousins.
Silver last week made it clear that the NBA has no plans to drastically change its playoff format, place additional limits on free agency or implement a hard salary cap. Teams just have to be managed better. The current free agency period has been different because of the lack of above-market contracts handed out to moderately talented players.
In other words, the summers where Evan Turner gets $70 million, Allen Crabbe gets $75 million, and Luol Deng nets $72 million are over. Teams are beginning to be more careful about dishing out lucrative contracts because of the high risk.
“Dynasties are nothing new in this league. There is a long history of it,” Silver said. “I also think it’s hard to make comparisons to other sports because in the NBA where superstar players are on the floor roughly 80 percent of the time, obviously play offense and defense, there are only four other teammates on the floor, they can be that much more dominant than even a great quarterback that is only on the field half the time and has many more teammates. Or a great NHL player who is on the ice roughly 30 percent of the time. So there are unique issues.
“As I said during the Finals, LeBron [James] had 59 different teammates over eight years. So we recognize that great players, superstar players, are going to have a unique ability to impact games. But having said that, there are changes we could make to the system that I think will create more competitive balance and more equality of opportunity, and those are things we look at.”
Players’ union executive director Michele Roberts agreed with Silver in saying competitive balance is only an issue for those teams who are losing.
“I don’t agree there’s a competitive imbalance between the East and the West,” she said. “I am as excited about this new season as I would have been [before]. This free agency, [the media] have had a lot to write about. We’re all, I think, looking forward to what’s going to happen come October.
“Competitive balance almost kind of depends on what your favorite team is. I don’t hear anybody in the Bay Area worried about competitive balance. I also don’t hear any people in Philadelphia worried about competitive balance, or Houston. We’ve got great teams.
“We’ve had dynasties, championship teams throughout the history of this game. So, I don’t mind the chat. As long as we’re talking about basketball, that means people are watching it. But to the extent where people are predicting the end of the game, I just don’t think so.
“I’d be surprised if Adam called me to say, ‘What in the hell are we going to do?’ I think he’s as happy and excited as I am that we’re going to have a great season. Keep writing about and I’ll keep reading about it, but I think we’re going to be in good shape.”
So, don’t expect any changes to the playoff format. What would concern Silver would be the possibility of Portland-Miami or Boston-Phoenix first-round playoff series and the grueling travel. For now, the East will face the East and the West will face the West until the Finals.
“The most significant obstacle to seeding 1 through 16, as appealing as that would be to me and a lot of fans, is the dramatic increase in travel that would follow,” Silver said. “Our estimates are if we seed 1 through 16 in the playoffs, we could be looking at roughly 40 to 50 percent more travel. And it would affect teams disproportionately. Those on the coasts would travel more than those in the middle of the country. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years trying to reduce the number of back-to-backs, to reduce the amount of fatigue on players based on crossing time zones.
“So obviously, if we were to make that change, it would work in the other direction. It doesn’t mean we can’t, but it’s not something we could do quickly because it would require a wholesale reexamination of how we do the schedule. How our television deal works in terms of the spacing of the games in the playoffs. So, we’re going to look at it. I think it has a real appeal to ownership, and I know it does to fans. It’s just not such an easy thing to implement.”
Female officials given their shot
The NBA uses summer league to test rule changes, such as the shot clock only resetting to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound. Women are also giving more opportunities to officiate games. The league currently has only one female referee — Lauren Holtkamp — and would like to train more candidates in the coming years.
According to the NBA, 19 of the 81 officials at summer league are women and 50 percent of the G-League officiating hires for next season are women.
“It’s what you like to see. Women are, of course, 50 percent of the population,” Silver said. “And we’re pleased to see, of course, we had two women out on the floor the other night for one of the games. It’s a process bringing women into the officiating ranks, getting more women, ultimately, as NBA officials. The way the development works now is all our current officials move through the G-League before they come into the NBA. We expect to have higher, significant numbers of women into the G-League development path coming out of the summer league this fall. So, it takes a little bit of time.
“It’s a bit embarrassing that we only have one working woman in our officiating ranks right now. There is no physical reason why that’s the case. It’s just the way things have grown up in the league, but we’re determined to change that as quickly as possible.”
Two years ago, Isaiah Thomas told reporters that the Celtics would need to “back up the Brinks truck” when he became a free agent in the summer of 2018. This past week, Thomas signed a one-year, minimum contract with the Nuggets. It’s been one of the more precipitous falls in NBA history, considering Thomas compiled the second-highest scoring average in Celtics history in 2016-17. Thomas played with a hip that needed surgery, then he was dealt to the Cavaliers in a package for Kyrie Irving, spent a troublesome half-season in Cleveland, and then was shipped to the Lakers, playing 17 games. Thomas has now been forced to bet on himself again, taking a minimum deal in order to prove himself for free agency in 2019. It’s uncertain how healthy Thomas is after surgery and whether he will be ready by training camp. Why did Thomas take such a tumble? It’s a combination of the injury that scared teams, and the fact that a 5-foot-9-inch point guard who struggles on defense and has bounced around the league isn’t exactly desirable. It seems many have forgotten Thomas’s amazing 2016-17 season, during which Thomas said several times that he was a maximum-salary player. But the Nuggets need a backup point guard and scoring off the bench, and Denver may be the best place for Thomas to resurrect his career . . . Marcus Smart isn’t the only restricted free agent waiting for an offer sheet. Valuable Rockets center Clint Capela is still without an agreement for next season, as are the Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell, Cleveland’s Rodney Hood, and Dallas’s Yogi Farrell. But since most teams have already used their salary cap space, it’s more likely that those players will return to their respective teams, on extensions or qualifying offers. Smart has the option to accept the $6 million offer from the Celtics and become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. The Celtics would like to sign Smart to an extension beyond next season, but without an offer sheet from another team that they would have the right to match, the Celtics are just playing the waiting game.