With Anthony Davis, Lakers should be heavy NBA title favorites

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USA Today Sports

With Anthony Davis, Lakers should be heavy NBA title favorites

The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t just pry open LeBron James’ championship window. They just blasted the window straight off the frame.

The NBA happens fast, doesn’t it? Five days ago, Kevin Durant was returning to the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and the two-time defending champs looked for a three-peat. In one of the most disastrous NBA weeks in recent history, Durant ruptured his Achilles and three days later, Klay Thompson tore his ACL. The Lakers didn’t even let the Raptors’ championship parade begin before they took back the frontpage.


After reportedly trading for Davis in exchange for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, three first-round picks (including this year’s No. 4 pick) and two unprotected pick swaps, the Lakers didn’t just catapult from a lottery team to championship contenders. They should be heavy favorites.

Davis is that good. As I detailed in the BIG Number in February, Davis becomes the best teammate James has ever had. The trade deadline soap opera and the Pelicans’ firesale obscure the fact that Davis had a monster season, posting a 30.3 player efficiency rating, which would be the highest for any James teammate, including Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Chris Bosh. Pick any metric from the pile and they all agree that Davis is one of the best players in today’s game -- and that was a down year.

We can debate all day whether Wade’s peak was or will be better than the Brow at his best, but James joined up when Wade was 28, entering the downside of his prime. Davis, who just turned 26 in March, is just entering his prime. We likely haven’t seen peak Brow. And now he gets to catch feeds from James and capitalize on the King’s gravitational pull. 

A core of James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma is already NBA Finals caliber, but the terrifying thing is that the Lakers will likely have a spot open for a third max-level player. Kuzma, who turns 24 next month, is too old to be a foundational prospect that a team like the Pelicans would covet in their rebuild. Ball and Ingram, on the other hand, are each 21 years old and will fit in nicely with Zion Williamson and whomever the Pelicans select at the No. 4 slot.

But for a team ready to win right now? Kuzma will be a really solid fourth option on the wing. Though he shot a disappointing 30.3 percent from 3-point land last season, he was far more efficient when he played next to James and still scored 19.5 points per 36 minutes in that alignment. With Davis in the paint, Kuzma should get some wide open looks next season, especially in the corner, where he’s a career 36.2 percent marksman.

So which free agent will the Lakers sign? If I’m Lakers president Rob Pelinka, I’m seeking a star that can shoot and defend at a high level. There’s no better candidate than, yup, the Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. The Lakers desperately need some perimeter defense now that Ball was sent to the Big Easy. Leonard is a two-way monster who could shoot the lights out and lock down opposing stars like he did to Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the playoffs.

But it’s not clear that Leonard wants to even play alongside James. After winning a championship while being the unquestioned No. 1 option in a drama-free environment with the Toronto Raptors, joining the Lakers would be a night-and-day experience. Leonard was born in Los Angeles and was California’s Mr. Basketball in high school, but he may prefer playing for the Clippers rather than joining the more Hollywood Lakers.

If not Leonard, LeBron should immediately hit up Kyrie Irving, who becomes the best shooter among the stars in this free agency class now that Thompson will be rehabbing most, if not all, of next season with a torn ACL. Irving’s shot disappeared in the playoffs, but he shot 40.1 percent from deep in the regular season, which was third-highest among 20-point scorers behind Stephen Curry (43.7 percent), Buddy Hield (42.7 percent) and Thompson (40.2). 

We saw what an Irving-led team looks like in Boston. We have also seen what Irving as a second or third option looks like in Cleveland. It looks a lot like a "Larry OB," as Leonard would say.

Should the Lakers fail to bring in Leonard or Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker could be fine Plan B’s. Jimmy Buckets is intriguing as a Leonard Light -- a top-shelf defender and crunchtime assassin. But I’d worry about spacing next to James as he made less than a 3-pointer per game last season with the Philadelphia 76ers. In that same vein, Kemba Walker could be an appealing Irving consolation prize, but he’s two years older and more of a liability on defense with his diminutive size approaching his 30s.

Don’t count out the Lakers opting for splitting that max-level money to multiple players. For instance, what if they went out and snagged Malcolm Brogdon and JJ Redick to round out their supporting cast? Not only would they be bringing two of the game’s elite shooters into the fray; it would badly hurt two of their top championship threats in Milwaukee and Philadelphia. 

Prying away Brogdon will be tougher considering that he’s a restricted free agent, giving the Bucks the ability to match any offer. By matching offers for Brogdon and retaining free agents Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic, the Bucks could be a small-market team paying a luxury tax bill even before Antetokounmpo’s Designated Player Exception, or “supermax,” would kick in during the 2021-22 season. 

That is, if Antetokounmpo signs the extension. Don’t think for a second that Antetokounmpo isn’t closely watching how ownership handles this offseason. If they get stingy and let Brogdon or Middleton walk, that might send the wrong signal to Antetokounmpo, who could be a free agent in 2021. Remember what we just saw Davis go through last season? That might be Antetokounmpo in 2019-20, if the Bucks don’t handle this correctly.

The safe bet is that the ownership group in Milwaukee pays up to keep the core, but man, would Brogdon be a perfect fit next to James. He was a card-carrying member of the 50-40-90 club, shooting at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 90 percent from the line. As a sharp ball-handler and elite defender, he would be a star version of what Matthew Dellavedova was in Cleveland.

Redick would be an obvious candidate to play the Ray Allen and Kyle Korver role next to James. Redick turns 35 later this month, but he just averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game and takes care of his body as well as any veteran in the league. Though I wouldn’t expect him to leave a great situation in Philadelphia, don’t count out a return to L.A. for Redick, who has remarkably made the playoffs every season of his career but still doesn’t have a championship.

Frank Vogel, in his first season with the Lakers, will have a tough job ahead of him if the Lakers can’t find elite shooters. If they can’t reel in Brogdon or Redick, look for the Lakers to target sharpshooters like Seth Curry, Wayne Ellington or Rudy Gay. Let’s not do the whole load-up-on-bad-shooters thing again, OK Lakers?

By the way, a round of applause for Davis’ agent, Rich Paul. He has certainly taken his lumps in the press for the way he handled the trade demand last season, but he got his wish, or I should say, his client’s wish, by forcing his way to LakerLand. Paul has done well for his star clientele. Davis is now in Los Angeles. John Wall got his supermax. Eric Bledsoe signed a $70 million extension two months before averaging 10.2 points in the Eastern Conference Finals. No agent has a perfect track record, but Paul has pulled out a big win here for his two top clients in James and Davis.

The Pelicans will be fascinating. I’ve always seen Lonzo Ball as a younger Jrue Holiday with the way he plays menacing defense. Ball has better vision and nifty handle, but he’ll need to improve his jump shot and strength if he wants to vault into Holiday’s All-Star status. I also like Hart’s skillset in that rebuild.

Ingram’s blood clots are concerning on some level, but medically, this isn’t a Chris Bosh situation; Ingram’s condition was a structural issue, not a genetic one. Obviously, the Pelicans did their homework and felt it checked out. I’m not as high on him as a prospect as others, but he could thrive next to Williamson. With Holiday, Ball, Hart, Ingram and Williamson as a defensive core, this could be the best defense for years to come. The shooting will be ugly next season, but it will sort itself out with the right pieces. David Griffin, the Pelicans’ head of basketball operations, was brilliant in Cleveland filling out the roster.

It’s a bit of a surprise that Griffin wasn’t able to snag a better player in the deal, but Griffin is basically making a bet that the Lakers will screw this up somehow. 

The pick structure is reminiscent of the heist that the Boston Celtics netted from the Brooklyn Nets for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. According to ESPN, the Pelicans will receive the No. 4 pick in 2019 draft, a top-eight protected pick in 2021 (which becomes unprotected in 2022), a 2023 unprotected pick swap, a 2024 unprotected first-round pick and a 2025 unprotected pick swap. 

What this boils down to is that the Pelicans have control of the Lakers’ first-rounders through LeBron’s 40th birthday. 

Griffin, who sources say wasn’t contacted to possibly replace Magic Johnson as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, likely sees the future draft picks as the gem of this deal. The Lakers could be great next season, but James turns 35 in December and Davis will be a free agent next summer. Davis seems like a lock to re-sign long term in L.A., but a lot can change in a year. In related news, the Raptors just won the championship with Kawhi Leonard.

As for the outside teams looking in, this is a crushing blow to the Boston Celtics, who might lose Irving now that Davis is heading West. The Celtics have long believed that trading for Davis would be the best chance in keeping Irving long term, sources say. But now they’re looking at a revamped 2018 playoff redux with Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown leading the way with Gordon Hayward back in the driver’s seat.

Next time someone tells you the NBA is rigged or too predictable, just end that conversation right then and there. Put the group chat on mute. Turn around and walk away. Hang up the phone. This time last year, the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics were destined to be battling it out for league supremacy for the foreseeable future. A year later, neither Boston nor Golden State look like bonafide contenders, for a variety of reasons.

With the Lakers, there’s surely more drama to be on the way. They may be title favorites now, but there are no guarantees in the NBA. I mean, the Lakers didn’t even make the playoffs last season. And neither did Davis. But this league runs on superstars. A James-Davis partnership alone is powerful enough to give them the inside edge to the NBA Finals. Life comes at you fast in the NBA. 

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Bradley Beal, Wizards buying in with new extension

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NBC Sports

Bradley Beal, Wizards buying in with new extension

Bradley Beal isn’t going anywhere.

That was the message Washington Wizards officials insisted on for months even when it seemed, from the outside, that Beal was facing an unpalatable situation, at best.

Consider the ominous backdrop. The Wizards missed the playoffs in 2018-19 despite Beal’s career year. The search to replace Ernie Grunfeld as the Wizards’ chief decision maker took nearly four months. Fellow backcourt star John Wall tore his Achilles and likely will miss the entire 2019-20 season. 

Not only that, but Anthony Davis -- who was picked two spots ahead of Beal in the 2012 draft -- just orchestrated an ugly exit from the franchise that drafted him. All the while, Beal’s name kept surfacing in the rumor mill as a potential trade target following a historic free agency bonanza that was sure to leave some teams desperate for a splashy move. 

Beal must have had his bags packed, right? 

Quite the contrary. The message I was hearing from the Wizards’ side of things was steadfast: We’re going to keep Beal -- not just for the season. He’s going to want to commit to what we’re building long-term.

On Thursday morning, that level of confidence was justified. Beal agreed to a two-year extension, first reported by ESPN, totalling $72 million through 2022-23 and lining him up for a potential record-breaking five-year, $266 million contract when he’s eligible for the 10-year pay bump in 2022, if he exercises a player option following the 2021-22 season.

This is an absolute home run for Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and his revamped front office structure led by general manager Tommy Sheppard and chief operations and planning officer Sashi Brown. Selling Beal on the team’s vision going forward was the top priority of the franchise.

Not only does it mean, by league rule, that Beal can’t be traded until July 2020, but the extension avoids the sticky situation of Beal becoming eligible for supermax money next summer if he landed on an All-NBA team this upcoming season (or won MVP or Defensive Player of the Year). In 2021-22, Beal is set to earn $34.5 million, about $10 million less than he could have gotten if he inked the supermax contract, a la Wall.

Beal could have demanded a trade like his draft classmate Davis. He could have tabled talks and gunned for an All-NBA selection this season to maximize his earnings. He could have kept this hanging over the Wizards all season. But instead, he signed off on the pitch outlined by Leonsis, Sheppard and the Wizards’ front office. 

Getting Beal’s commitment wasn’t going to be easy considering the strong league-wide current pulling the other way. Beal had to be assured that things would be different going forward. Beal had, at times, been frustrated about the lack of accountability in the front office, according to sources. Those feelings reportedly boiled over in a November practice in which he levied strong words at Grunfeld.

Leonsis’ decision to promote from within was met with surprise by some around the league. While Sheppard was highly-regarded throughout league circles, he also stood loyally by Grunfeld’s side for 16 years. Could Sheppard really convince Beal in a short time that he’s not Grunfeld 2.0?

The answer to that question is loud and clear. After years of shedding longer-term assets for quick fixes, Sheppard and the front office made a play for decade-long sustainability. 

They drafted Rui Hachimura with the No. 9 overall pick and added Admiral Schofield at No. 42 via a deal with Philadelphia. What followed draft night was three shrewd cap moves to acquire talent for next to nothing. The team plucked Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones and a second-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers, who needed to offload money to acquire Davis. Then, Sheppard absorbed former Spurs sharpshooter Davis Bertans when San Antonio needed to move salary in order to sign Marcus Morris, who ended up backing out of the deal to sign with the Knicks. 

To further establish a new culture, the team swapped Dwight Howard’s contract for another veteran sharpshooter who was rehabbing from injury in C.J. Miles. In a season where several contenders will likely look to add talent at the deadline, both Bertans and Miles could be moved for picks.

Sheppard and the front office weren’t done making plays with the long-term future in mind. Rather than pay big money to retain restricted free agents Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker, the team moved on. They inked 22-year-old Thomas Bryant to a three-year deal for backup money after an impressive season as the team’s starting center. The final tally at the outset of free agency: The Wizards acquired seven players under the age of 23 (Jones was waived Wednesday).

Evidently, Beal was impressed with the reset, turning down the opportunity to be the biggest name on the market this season and signing for less than he could have if he made All-NBA. 

At the age of 26, Beal is a consummate franchise pillar. The two-time All-Star averaged 25.6 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds last season, one of six players to reach those marks last season. The other five -- LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Kevin Durant -- have all won MVP awards. Beal has played all 82 games in each of the last two seasons, a feat almost no one thought was possible after he battled stress fractures early in his career. 

The extension will take Beal under contract through his age-29 season, when he will be reaching the apex of his career, about the same phase that Curry, Harden and Kawhi Leonard are in now. The Wizards may not make the playoffs this season, but under revamped leadership, there’s at least a roadmap to contention. The Wizards just needed to buy some time to see it through. Beal’s extension, which at multiple points seemed unlikely, gives them that. And affirmation that the Wizards have something here.

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Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

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USA Today Sports

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

LeBron James’ team could not score. Worse yet, his star big man was injured.

The Miami Heat managed just 75 points against the vaunted Indiana Pacers defense led by Frank Vogel in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. Chris Bosh pulled an abdominal muscle in Game 1 and wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Heat were in crisis mode.

The next day, the Heat held practice to figure out who was going to replace Bosh in the starting lineup. Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem started Game 2, but matching the Pacers’ massive size up front wasn’t working. David West and Roy Hibbert weren’t budging.

After practice, the Heat’s brain trust gathered for an intense meeting. Some believed staying big was the only logical choice. Others thought going small would force the Pacers to adjust. Pat Riley voiced his thoughts and so did New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant coach at the time. 

The late-night meeting never resulted in consensus. Spoelstra and the Heat brass walked to their cars in the parking garage along Biscayne Bay.

Spoelstra turned to his colleagues.

“I know what I’m gonna do,” Spoelstra said with a look.

They knew what it meant. 

The next night, Spoelstra signed his starting lineup sheet with Shane Battier starting as a big, allowing LeBron James to effectively operate as the power forward on offense. The Heat lost Game 3, but Spoelstra kept at it. In Game 4, the Heat exploded for 101 points as James erupted for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists with Ronny Turiaf as the Heat’s lone true big man on the court.

James was unlocked as a do-it-all big man. He set screens. He crashed the boards for putback dunks. He sliced through the defense as West shadowed Battier at the perimeter. After two 75-point games, the Heat would go on to average 100.7 points for the rest of the playoffs and eventually win the 2012 NBA Finals with the smaller, unconventional formation with a fully recovered Bosh at center.

Now, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing a similar dilemma -- but with a twist. Now, Vogel is the head coach with the chance to go small. With James’ star big man DeMarcus Cousins out with a torn ACL suffered last week, does his coach effectively make James a big again?

That doesn’t happen without Anthony Davis’ blessing. And therein lies the rub. 

At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and listed at 253 pounds, Davis is one of the largest human beings on the planet. But even while the league is moving away from lumbering 7-footers, Davis still prefers not to play the position of players his size. In fact, he told the Lakers up front that he wanted the roster stocked with centers.

Sitting between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Vogel at the Lakers’ introductory press conference last month, Davis was asked about his ideal position.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Davis said. “I like playing the 4. I don’t really like playing the 5.”

Then Davis smiled and put his hand on Vogel’s shoulder.

“But if it comes down to it, if coach needs me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”

Pelinka jumped in, emphasizing the fact that the Lakers granted the upcoming free agent’s wishes by getting commitments from JaVale McGee and Cousins.

“When Anthony and I first started talking about the roster, he did say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have some 5s that can bang with some length.’ He’s 26. We want a decade of dominance out of him here so we’ve got to do what’s best for his body,” Pelinka said. “And having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what’s best for his body, or for our team or for our franchise.

“We wanted to make sure to honor what Anthony asked for: to get some 5s that he can play with.”

The Lakers aren’t exactly turning tides. Looking at the New Orleans Pelicans’ free agent signings over the years, it’s clear that Davis’ preferences were granted there, too.

In 2015, the team signed center Omer Asik to a five-year, $58 million contract and center Alexis Ajinca to a four-year, $20 million deal. In 2016-17, the Pelicans traded Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a future first-round and second-round pick for yet another center, this time, the All-Star Cousins. In 2017-18, the team swung a deal for sweet-shooting center Nikola Mirotic, who starred as Davis’ counterpart in the 2018 playoffs after Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in January of that season. With Mirotic spacing the floor next to Davis, the team swept the Portland Trail Blazers.

Like he professes to do for Vogel, Davis has manned the 5 in high-profile situations. In 60 possessions while Davis guarded Jusuf Nurkic in that playoff series, the Blazers’ offense managed just 50 points, spitting out just 83.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats. On the other end, Davis manhandled Nurk to the tune of 64 points on 59.5 percent shooting in 134 possessions with the Portland center guarding him. Davis’ soaring putback dunk on Nurkic in Game 3 was the signature moment of the series, symbolizing Davis’ power as a towering big man.

Putting Davis-at-center on the backburner until the postseason may be the Lakers’ plan. McGee could be the regular-season stopgap until the postseason arrives and then they could more regularly unleash a pseudo-Death Lineup with James at the 4 and Davis at the 5. 

Though McGee was the Lakers’ full-time starter last season, he wasn’t nearly as entrusted to be the finisher. Simply put, he started 76 percent of the Lakers’ games, but played just 31 percent of the team’s clutch minutes. Presumably, Cousins was supposed to fill that role, but his season is in doubt recovering from an ACL tear.

Protecting Davis’ body should be a top priority for the Lakers. After all, Davis in street clothes can’t play any position. On that point, Davis has suffered no shortage of nagging injuries over his seven-year career, holding his career high in games played to just 75 games. On his left side of his body, public book-keeping data shows that he has missed games due to an injured toe, ankle, knee, hip, groin and shoulder. On the right side, he has sat out with a damaged toe, quad, hip, elbow and shoulder. More generally, he has been sidelined games with concussions, a sore back and bruised chest. You can understand his reluctance to “bang” with centers every night.

As of now, McGee doesn’t have a true backup center on the depth chart, if we’re not counting Davis. James, Jared Dudley and Kyle Kuzma could moonlight as small-ball centers in a pinch. With Cousins out, the Lakers reportedly are bringing in free agent centers Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Mo Speights for workouts this week, with Marcin Gortat on the radar. 

But if the choice is between veteran free agent centers to eat up minutes, the call is an easy one for me: it should be Noah. 

Though Noah is not the dynamic scorer that Cousins is, the 33-year-old brings the same playmaking and rebounding abilities as Cousins, but with more defensive fire (see: Devin Booker). Noah can fill the void left by Cousins as a distributor. Last season, only six centers tallied more than six assists per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference tracking. Cousins was one of them. Another was Noah. 

In the end, the best Lakers’ replacement for Cousins is Davis himself. If we earmarked Cousins for 30 minutes a night at center, most of those minutes should now go to Davis. That allocation might not happen until playoff time in the name of preserving Davis’ body. But it should still happen.

While the focus is on the short term, what the Lakers do with their lineups in April, May and June is most important. The Heat didn’t go to Bosh at center until late in the 2012 playoffs and it resulted in their first title together. The next year, they won again with Bosh at center, culminating in his iconic rebound in Game 6 to save the season. It’s not hard to see Davis being the new Bosh and Dudley filling Battier’s role as the veteran dirty-work spacer. Imagine Davis and James working in a spread-out system. That could be the silver lining of Cousins’ injury.

Just like that Heat team, the Lakers can use this adversity and turn it into an opportunity. James likes to say that the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. It’s a saying that he picked up in Miami, only after losing the Finals in 2011. Hopefully for the Lakers, they won’t have to experience a similar defeat for Davis to see it.

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