Los Angeles Lakers

What if LeBron heads West?


What if LeBron heads West?

The odds are out on where LeBron James will play next season, and his decision could have a huge impact on the Western Conference. James could still exercise his $35.6 million player-option and return to Cleveland, but the more likely scenario is to decline the option and hit the open market. 

According to the odds, the Lakers, Rockets, and Spurs are the three most likely teams in the Western Conference to land him. Here is how they can do it, and how it would impact the conference in 2018-19.

Lakers: +200

The Lakers currently hold the best odds of any team in the NBA to land LeBron James and will be heading into free agency with more cap space than any other team in the league. The Lakers will have enough free money that they can add James as well as another star, most likely Paul George.  Then the question is, do you keep Lonzo Ball or do you strike while the iron is hot, sell high, and trade him to bring in vets to complete the roster? Either way, a Lakers team built around James and George would all but assure the Lakers would end their playoff drought.

How it affects the West - Last season just two games separated the three seed Blazers from the eight seed Timberwolves, with the Nuggets dropping to ninth in the final game of the season.  A revamped Lakers squad would instantly be in the playoff mix, meaning any team that made playoffs last season (not named the Warriors or Rockets) would most likely end 2019 on the outside looking in.  

Rockets: +275

Houston is also a favorite to add James, but the Rockets would have to shake up the roster for it to happen. Chris Paul is heading to free agency and could be looking to make more than the $24.6 million he made last season. Star center Clint Capela is also hitting the open market. Capela made just $2.3 million last season and has a giant raise coming his way. That doesn’t leave a lot of money to sign James.

The Rockets may have to find ways to free up Ryan Anderson ($19.6mil), Eric Gordon ($12.9mil) and P.J. Tucker ($7.6mil) to make it all happen. Houston would have one heck of a starting five, but not much of a bench. Either way, they would still be a favorite to win the title in 2019.

How it affects the West - James to Houston wouldn’t impact the standings as much as James to the Lakers would, but it would most certainly make it a two horse race to the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets were penciled into the Western Conference Finals this season, and with James added to the roster you might as well use a permanent marker. The real impact would be in how teams adjust. If the Western Conference turns into Golden State, Houston, and everybody else (which you could argue it is already), you could really see some playoff caliber teams enter rebuild mode in an attempt to be ready for the post-Warriors/Rockets era. 

Spurs: +1000

The Spurs would be an intriguing landing spot simply to see what happens when the best player in the game gets paired up with the best coach in the game. However, like the Rockets, San Antonio is in a tough financial situation.

Tony Parker is hitting free agency, freeing up $15.5 million, while Rudy Gay and Danny Green could free up another $18.8 million combined if they both choose not to exercise their player options. If Gay and Green exercise their options, then you will most likely see the Spurs push hard to trade Patty Mills ($10mil) and Pau Gasol ($16mil) to free up space.

How it affects the West - A core of James, Kawhi Leonard, and LaMarcus Aldridge would instantly make the Spurs a top three team in the Western Conference. The Spurs finished seventh last season, and vaulting to three would mean a team like the Blazers could end up missing the playoffs when it’s all said and done.

The Spurs would also make it a lot tougher for the Warriors and Rockets to make a repeat trip to the conference finals.


From man to Superman over the final five minutes, Lillard does it again

From man to Superman over the final five minutes, Lillard does it again

All seemed lost and then he did it again. Damian Lillard took off on another rescue mission Monday night in Los Angeles and mission accomplished.

Lillard used to famously make the final, pressure-packed shot for the Trail Blazers... you know, "Lillard Time." But the Portland guard has gone from five special seconds to five mind-blowing minutes. He goes from man to Superman when his team needs it and during this seven-game Portland win streak he's been infallible. He was 5-5 from three-point range over the final five minutes, including a bomb from somewhere near Thousand Oaks.

He had 19 in the final quarter and sparked an 11-0 run to tie the game. In the end, it was a 22-6 streak over the last 3:18 of the game and his fingerprints were all over it. Prior to that, the Blazers appeared out of it. Lillard and CJ McCollum uncharacteristically combined to miss eight of their 25 free throws. Dame had earlier fired up a couple of airballs -- his quota for a month, usually.

Jusuf Nurkic and Al-Farouq Aminu were fumbling passes near the rim and failing to finish even when they caught the ball. Aminu went 2-for-9 from the field with five turnovers and Evan Turner was 1-for-4. It was looking pretty grim.

But Lillard flipped his Super Switch and was locked in late. It was another MVP-level performance.

And it hasn't looked this easy in Portland since Clyde Drexler patrolled the backcourt for the Trail Blazers in the 1980s and '90s. Drexler is the only other Trail Blazer I can recall who was capable of sustaining such a domination for as long as five minutes. And of course, he's in the Hall of Fame.

Lillard finished with 39 points and even that doesn't tell the whole story.

This was some very special sauce.


The Lakers are getting what they deserve from LaVar Ball

The Lakers are getting what they deserve from LaVar Ball

The youngest pair of the Ball kids are in Lithuania, taking a stab at pro basketball far from home. Why do I think this has no chance of working out well?

Of course, ESPN has a crew following the Ball family, much to the chagrin of a lot of people. In fact, Golden State Coach Steve Kerr spoke for many Monday about the coverage of Old Man Ball:

“I was thinking about ESPN, and they laid off, I don’t know, 100 people,” Kerr said. “How many people did they lay off over the last year? Well over 100, many of whom were really talented journalists covering the NBA. So, this is not an ESPN judgment, it’s a societal thing more than anything. Where we’re going is we’re going away from covering the game, and we’re going toward just sensationalized news. It’s not even news, really. It’s just complete nonsense. But if you package that irrational nonsense with glitter and some ribbon, people are going to watch.

“So, I talked to people in the media this year. I said, ‘Why do you guys have to cover that guy?’ And they say, ‘Well, we don’t want to, but our bosses tell us we have to because of the ratings, because of the readership.’ Somewhere, I guess in Lithuania, LaVar Ball is laughing. People are eating out of his hands for no apparent reason, other than that he’s become the Kardashian of the NBA or something.”

I tend to agree with Kerr but I also understand that if news outlets, blogs or websites don't give people what they want, they will soon be out of business. And the public is fascinated by the loud-mouthed father and his impact on his talented sons.

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Caught in the crossfire of all of it is Los Angeles Laker Coach Luke Walton, pretty much an innocent bystander. The Lakers had to know what would happen when they drafted this kid -- his father's  meddling behavior was no secret. I think Walton has done a very good job with his young Laker team this season but, of course, the elder Ball has alleged that Walton has lost control of the team and players don't want to play for him.

Yes, a lot of NBA parents would like to blame coaches for the problems their kids are having -- and I'm guessing if they start popping off about it, there will be a microphone in their face, too. But this guy is a rare one in that he doesn't seem to understand the impact his antics are having on his children. And that makes him news whether we like it or not.

The biggest problem in Los Angeles, though -- and the reason people are actually listening to the Old Man -- is that the Lakers themselves set the  bar way too high for their performance this season. I was sitting in the Thomas & Mack Center last summer when the Lakers beat Portland for the summer-league championship and the celebration, in front of a pro-Laker crowd and NBA-TV, was way over the top. And the centerpiece of all that was an overly excited Magic Johnson proclaiming, "The Lakers are back!"

Ugh. No way. It's the freaking summer league. And Magic should have known better. But summer league helped create an unrealistic expectation that Ball was going to be an immediate superstar and that the Lakers were ready to contend for a playoff spot. And when expectations aren't met, people always look for scapegoats. The elder Ball found his -- the coach -- and it's just his way to take the heat off his son, who hasn't had the kind of season the Lakers obviously expected from him.

Fans, searching for who to blame, are ready to latch onto the coaching narrative because they never want to blame players.

And it became Luke Walton's job to try to meet those lofty expectations with a team and a point guard not ready for such a task. He deserves better and I don't blame the media or LaVar Ball. The Lakers set themselves up for this and they did their coach wrong by it.

Lonzo Ball's jump shot seems to prove his dad isn't the "best coach ever"

Lonzo Ball's jump shot seems to prove his dad isn't the "best coach ever"

After watching Lonzo Ball in summer league I was interested to see him in person again last week.

But he was pretty much a no-show against the Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard outscored him 32-0, which you know by know. But I'm not here to tear him apart. I think he's going to be a very good NBA player, one who pushes the pace and sees the court. He;s unselfish and is willing to take responsibility for his actions on the court.

But oh my, that jump shot. It appears nobody on the Lakers' staff has touched it since the summer and at some point, I think he's going to have to put in some work on it. There have been plenty of successful NBA players with funky shooting mechanics, but I cannot see how this kid will ever reach his potential with a shot that takes so long to load and is so far from linear that it's always going to be very fragile. You can read Charles Barkley's take on the shot here, with video, and Chuck is correct.

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What amazes me about the way the kid shoots, though, is that he's coming out of the basketball factory of his father, LaVar, the self-proclaimed "best coach ever." This man actually does seem to believe that he has the cheat code to creating basketball players. But when your son hits the NBA with a shot that broken, it certainly reflects on the "coach" who has approved those mechanics -- and is still approving them:

"Oh, ain't nobody tinkering with his shot. He's going to shoot the same way, comfortable, like I said, who cares about his shot," he said.

Lonzo will eventually settle in at a decent percentage if he continues to shoot that way. The good NBA players put in so much work that improvement is inevitable. But until he lines that shot up better, he's not going to ever reach his potential as a shooter or a player. At some point, somebody on the Laker staff is going to have to tell the old man to go sit on the sidelines and shut up while they do some renovation on that jumper.

But do you think that will happen?



Trail Blazers say late-game win 'does a lot' for confidence

Trail Blazers say late-game win 'does a lot' for confidence

When Damian Lillard hit the game-winning three pointer Thursday against the Lakers, it did more than end the Trail Blazers’ two-game losing streak.

It also went a long way to healing some late-game wounds that have bothered the team.

It wasn’t the first time the Trail Blazers have closed out a close-game this season, but inside the team, Thursday’s last-second victory sure felt like the end of a trend.

Lillard, whose three-pointer with 0.7 seconds left broke a tie, said the win was cause to exhale because of the clutch manner it was earned.

“If you lose this one, then you are a little worried,’’ Lillard said. “But I think the fact that we had to win it – the way we won it – I think it does something. It does a lot for us because we had to fight for it.’’

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 -- click to learn more and buy]

The Blazers (5-4) have won close games this season, sealing a 103-93 win over New Orleans in the home opener by closing on a 9-0 over the final 3:23, then pulling away from a two-point lead over Phoenix with 1:43 left to win 114-107.

But perhaps more magnified have been the Blazers’ late-game letdowns. A loss in Milwaukee after three turnovers in the final 31 seconds erased a one-point lead. The missed free throw with 5.7 seconds left against the Clippers that allowed Blake Griffin to win the game at the buzzer. The two turnovers in the final three minutes at Utah that went a long way to erasing a six-point lead and eventually led to an overtime loss.

So never mind the porous defense that allowed 54 percent shooting, and the lack of focus that led to losing an 18-point lead. The Blazers were more transfixed on the finish, because it seemingly disproved their inability to close out a close game.

“The way we have been losing, it was good we were put in that position again,’’ Lillard said. “This is what we have to do to get it going in the right direction. It was good for us.’’

Although CJ McCollum had another late-game turnover – dribbling the ball out of bounds with 3:20 left and the Blazers trailing 103-100 – the Blazers went 4-for-4 from the free throw line and didn’t give the ball back to the Lakers over their final seven possessions. Meanwhile, Maurice Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic recorded steals.

“It’s good to get a close-game win,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “We needed that, especially on the heels of not only (at Utah) but some of the other games.’’

The Lakers got off way too easy on that tampering charge

The Lakers got off way too easy on that tampering charge

There are a couple of things that really bothered me about that $500,000 fine the Lakers got for tampering with Paul George, who was then under contract to the Indiana Pacers.

First, it was not enough of a penalty for a team that was previously warned about tampering with George. By now, you've probably seen this clip from the Jimmy Kimmel Show that features Laker President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson joking about tampering with George. After that show aired, the league specifically sent a warning to the Lakers.

But the Lakers later defied that order when General Manager Rob Pelinka spoke to George's agent. To me, that takes the tampering to an entirely different level. I was shocked the league didn't either take a draft choice away from Los Angeles or, better yet, bar them from signing George a year from now when he becomes a free agent.

The Lakers were caught with their hand in the cookie jar and instead of pulling the hand away, they just dug deeper. That tells you something about the respect that franchise has for the league office.

Does $500,000 sound severe to you? Well, certainly not as tough as when the league took $3.5 million and five draft picks away from Minnesota for an illegal agreement with Joe Smith. That deal also led to front-office suspensions and the Timberwolves being prohibited from signing Smith. On the surface, making an illegal deal seems much worse than whet the Lakers did but really, making illegal contact with the agent of a player a year away from free agency is very serious, too. Particularly when you've been warned not to do it.

I think back to the Trail Blazers being fined $250,000 in 1984 for illegal contact with Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon. It was a huge sum at the time and all the Trail Blazers did was agree to explain the salary cap to the players prior to the draft. At that time, a quarter of a million was a whole lot of money. And at a time when the league wasn't nearly as prosperous as the NBA is now.

Of course, those fines were levied by then-commissioner David Stern. I believe the current administration led by Adam Silver is much softer -- on players and ownership. It's a go-along, get-along kind of league now. Everything is cool. Silver just keeps smiling.

Fining the Lakers a half million in today's NBA is a joke. The Lakers -- a company worth billions -- probably spend that much on post-game spreads in the family room. Sure, there is all sorts of tampering going on now -- but what a perfect time to make an example of a team breaking the rules. Certainly a $500,000 fine isn't going to deter a team from illegal contact.

I mean, why bother with those tampering rules if you aren't going to enforce them?

And does anybody think the Pacers would have gotten the same treatment had they tampered with a Laker player? I don't think so. It's no secret the NBA wants the Lakers strong again and wasn't anxious to do anything that would impede their growth.

It's too bad.


Trail Blazer summer-league team represented the franchise well

Trail Blazer summer-league team represented the franchise well

LAS VEGAS – Before the start of the annual Las Vegas Summer League tournament, I made the offhand remark that when it was finished, every team but one would tell you the truth -- that winning a summer-league championship is about as big a deal as a single melting ice cube on a typical 113-degree day here.

The other team – the one that won the tournament – would tell you, though, how meaningful and important it was. That it is a sign of good things to come.

But I didn't expect the Los Angeles Lakers to take it to the extreme, with Magic Johnson telling the assembled crowd and a national television audience, “The Lakers are back.”

Sorry, I don’t buy that. Especially with the Lakers, They have a long way to go to be “back” – that is, at the point when they were “Showtime” and the most popular team in the NBA.

Johnson knows better than anyone that summer league stuff is mostly meaningless and no guarantee of future success (or failure).

Portland’s summer-league experience was a little different than most teams here. The Trail Blazers were not loaded with a crop of youngsters who will someday be wearing a Portland uniform.

Sure, you’you'll be seeing more of Jake Layman, Caleb Swanigan, Zach Collins and (maybe) Pat Connaughton. But the Trail Blazers’ march to the championship game was fueled by some very tough and experienced free agents here playing for a job.

It would be nice to say that a few of those guys will be in training camp this fall trying to win a roster spot with Portland, but barring a trade that frees a couple of roster spots, that isn't’t likely to happen.

The free agents wearing Portland uniforms likely played well enough to earn invites to teams that offer a much better chance of them earning a spot. The Trail Blazer roster is, for right now at least, on lockdown.

So what does this fun run to the last night of the tournament mean for the Portland franchise? I’m glad you asked.

I think it was important. First, the franchise showed it could make some shrewd moves in bringing in experienced free agents who could help its roster players in important ways – like getting them the ball where they needed it, on time, and were unselfish enough to defer to those players when necessary. The group followed orders and played hard.

Of course the summer also showcased the Portland coaching staff, which I’m more impressed with every season. Jim Moran was the head coach and looked very comfortable in that position.

But all the assistants have input in the summer and they did a terrific job of instituting the Portland system and getting the most out of the players they had.

This Portland team played to its strengths, which meant pounding the ball inside with Swanigan and Jarnell Stokes. And this was a physical group that did that very well.

I think the showing of this team was good for the franchise, reflecting favorably on its organizational abilities and system. And it was especially good for Swanigan and Layman, who showed they could handle the responsibility of being important players. Both improved with each game.

I believe Swanigan will earn rotation minutes with sheer effort and versatility. He is a willing banger and a very good passer who chases every rebound.

Of course doing those things against veteran NBA players is a lot different than doing it in summer league.

And come on, Magic, you know that as well as anyone. I love the guy but for now, the only thing "back" with the Lakers is Johnson himself.

Lakers bury Blazers' title hopes under an avalanche of threes

Lakers bury Blazers' title hopes under an avalanche of threes

LAS VEGAS -- The hope of a summer-league championship died hard for the Trail Blazers Monday night. But it died just the same.

The Los Angeles Lakers knocked down 14 of its 24 three-point field goals and shot 61.5 percent from the field overall to beat Portland in the title game 110-98.

Portland let through most of the first half and by as many as eight points, but only by one, 59-58, at halftime. Caleb Swanigan, earlier named to the Summer-League all-star first team, owned the first half. He had 11 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 17:44. Jarnell Stokes led the Blazers in the first half with 14.

It was a hot-shooting opening half. Portland fired at a 51.1 percent clip but the Lakers were better at 59 percent, including 8 of their 12 three-point attempts.

Kyle Kuzma -- probably the best shooter in the summer league -- hit a howitzer from well beyond the arc at the third-quarter buzzer to give Los Angeles an 84-79 lead going into the fourth quarter. The Blazres fell behind quickly in the fourth, as the Lakers rattled off the first eight points of the period to capture a 92-79 lead.

Kuzma was unstoppable, as he has been for much of this tournament. He hit 11 of his first 14 shots, six of eight from long range, and had 30 points in the first three quarters. Portland fought back, as it has done throughout this tournament, but the lead was too much to overcome.

Swanigan led Portland with 25 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

History tells us Rockets' margin of victory means nothing

History tells us Rockets' margin of victory means nothing

Not many people picked the Houston Rockets to defeat the San Antonio Spurs in their second-round playoff matchup that began last night in San Antonio. But I did. So you would think I'd be feeling pretty good about the Rockets after their 126-99 thrashing of the Spurs Monday night.

And even though San Antonio appeared to be way overmatched in Game 1 of the series, I feel worse about my prediction than you might think. That's because I was in the old Boston Garden on May 27, 1985 for the first game of that season's Finals when the Celtics ran the Los Angeles Lakers out of the gym with a humiliating 148-114 defeat. They called it the Memorial Day Massacre.

I was one of many people after that game to write about how washed up the Lakers -- and 38-year-old center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- looked in that game. Abdul-Jabbar finished with 12 points and three rebounds and just didn't look as if he could keep up with Boston's talented front line. I thought the series was over right then and there.

And I was very wrong. The Lakers won four of the next five games and closed out the Celts in Boston in Game 6 -- behind Abdul-Jabbar, who won the MVP award for the series. It was the only time the Celtics ever lost an NBA championship in that arena.

So that whipping Houston put on San Antonio didn't make me feel all that much better about its chances. It was just one game and next one doesn't start with the Rockets holding a 27-point lead.

I'd say the series hinges on the play of LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored just four points Monday night. When Aldridge left Portland for the Spurs, I'm sure he was satisfied with the salary he'd be making and the winning tradition of his new team. But I'm wondering now if he understood the sort of responsibility he'd be having to shoulder as the Spurs moved through the playoffs. Tim Duncan isn't going to be walking through that locker room door during this series.

There were times in Portland when I thought Aldridge wanted very much to be a superstar but didn't always respond like one. He had the talent... but did he have the heart?

He better find his way in a hurry for the Spurs because Kawhi Leonard can't be expected to carry that team by himself.

Trail Blazers beat Lakers, assume 'driver's seat' in playoff race

Trail Blazers beat Lakers, assume 'driver's seat' in playoff race

LOS ANGELES – It took 51 days, but the Trail Blazers have finally regained possession of a playoff position.

Behind 22 points from Damian Lillard and some hot shooting from Allen Crabbe, the Blazers beat the Lakers 97-81 on Sunday at the Staples Center to move into a tie with Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with nine games remaining.

Denver, which lost 115-90 to New Orleans earlier in the day, plays at Portland on Tuesday at the Moda Center (7 p.m., CSN). Portland leads the season series 2-1, but can clinch the tie-breaker over Denver even if it loses Tuesday by virtue of winning one of its remaining four division games or having Denver lose one of its three remaining division games.

Seven of the Blazers’ final nine games are at home while seven of the Nuggets final nine games are on the road.

“We know if we can string a few games together at this point, we can be in the driver’s seat,’’ Lillard said before the game. “That’s a great position to be in.’’

Denver has held the eighth spot since Feb. 3, when Portland lost at home to Dallas to fall to 22-29 and Denver beat Milwaukee to improve to 22-27.

The Blazers have caught fire in March, improving to 11-3 in the month, with much of the surge being sparked by center Jusuf Nurkic, who was acquired in a February 12 trade with Denver for Mason Plumlee.

On Sunday, Portland struggled early against the last-place Lakers, but a third-quarter surge, led by Lillard’s 14 points, pushed a 51-46 lead to 77-56 entering the fourth quarter.

It was the Blazers’ 12th consecutive victory over the Lakers, a franchise record.

While Portland was misfiring early, Crabbe rescued them. He made six of his first 10 shots, including three three-pointers. He finished with 18 points and six rebounds, keeping the Blazers afloat long enough for Lillard to heat up and take them home

Noah Vonleh set a career high with 14 rebounds and Al-Farouq Aminu had nine points and 10 rebounds off the bench.

D’Angelo Russell led the Lakers (21-52) with 22 points while leading scorer Jordan Clarkson had an off night, making only 4-of-16 shots for 10 points.

Next up: Denver at Blazers, 7 p.m. Tuesday (CSN).