Garbage Time All-Stars

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NBC Sports

Garbage Time All-Stars

(Note: All statistics are through Monday, March  11.)

Welcome to Spring League, NBA fans.

This is the part of the regular season that most closely resembles the NBA’s Summer League exhibition series, where many franchises focus more on getting an extended look at young prospects and giving their stars a break.

Take the Los Angeles Lakers, for example. With the playoffs all but out of reach, LeBron James was placed in a “load-management” protocol by the Lakers, whose 2019 first-round pick becomes more valuable every minute that James does not play. The Lakers also signed 33-year-old G League journeyman Andre Ingram to a 10-day contract after he became a national sensation last season. No disrespect to Ingram, but the Lakers, like the New Orleans Pelicans, are making the organizational choice to not try to win games.

As such, there’s going to be a whole lot of non-competitive stretches in the final month of the season. With that in mind, I decided to take a look at Garbage Time Heroes that could help you win your fantasy league or choose what to watch every night.

I’ve broken it down into three categories. First, I was curious about which stars have the largest differential in how they score when the scoreboard is tight compared to when the game gets out of hand. For those, I looked at each of the top 25 scorers and analyzed their points per 36 minutes when the score is within five points versus when the lead or deficit is over 15 points (garbage time). The players with the biggest jumps in scoring during garbage time are listed below.

Secondly, I identified a few players who could see big numbers down the stretch as their teams go into full-out tank mode. And lastly, I listed three G League call-ups that could make some noise down the stretch as good teams rest their stars for the playoffs and bad teams rest their stars for the draft lottery.

Let’s get to it.

Opportunistic Stars

Klay Thompson

Of the top 25 scorers, no one saw their scoring numbers jump during garbage time more than Thompson. He scores 29.5 points per 36 minutes when the Warriors are either leading or trailing by more than 15 points compared to 22.7 points per 36 minutes when it’s within five or less. That’s not just a matter of touches. Thompson’s field-goal percentage also drops from 54 percent to 46 percent when the games are more competitive, a decline anchored by a 3-point percentage that sinks from 49 percent to 36 percent in the same situation.

This isn’t an isolated case, either. Though he’s certainly had his playoff moments (sorry, OKC), Thompson has also seen his scoring shrink in the playoffs when the competition is stronger than in the regular season. The sharpshooter has averaged more than 20 points per game in each of the previous four regular seasons but has reached that plateau just once in the past four postseasons.

It could be that playoff teams try to take away Thompson first and then deal with the rest of the Warriors. Teams could also be keying in on Thompson a lot more when the game is close and loosen their grip when the game seems out of hand. But either way, Thompson’s scoring rate jumps 6.7 points in garbage time, the highest in this group.

Zach LaVine

LaVine has fought the label of being an overrated “good stats, bad team” guy. While such criticism is unfair for a guy who just turned 24 years old and tore his ACL two years ago, these numbers certainly doesn’t help his case. LaVine has scored 161 points in 199 minutes of garbage time this season, a rate of 29.1 points per 36 minutes. But when the game is close, LaVine’s scoring average plummets to 23.2 points per 36 minutes, a difference of 5.9 points, the second-largest gap on this list.

Most of LaVine’s scoring surge in garbage time can be attributed to his overt aggressiveness. In those less-competitive minutes, he’s shooting 21.2 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes, compared to just 18.4 in tighter situations. He’s actually sharper from 3-point land in close situations (41 percent vs. 30 percent), which further emphasizes that this is more about usage than it is about efficiency. Still, scoring 23.2 points per 36 minutes in competitive circumstances ain’t bad.

Bradley Beal

No star has scored more points in garbage time than Beal (278 points). Most of that is because the Wizards get blown out a ton, but that’s hardly Beal’s fault. Case in point: Since the All-Star break, the Wizards are plus-47 with Beal on the floor and minus-46 with him off the court. Beal’s scoring average in garbage-time situations is 27.3 points per 36 minutes, which is 4.6 points larger than when games are tighter.

That being said, I still think he should be in the All-NBA conversation (I laid out his candidacy in this week’s BIG Number video). Even if Beal has a scoring surge in garbage time, those situations only make up 15 percent of his minutes this season. The guy has played more minutes than anybody in the NBA this season. If he’s ball-hogging a bit in blowouts, so be it.

CJ McCollum

Fun fact: McCollum is a card-carrying member of the 50/40/90 shooting club -- as long as we’re talking about garbage time. (For those who don’t know, the 50/40/90 shooting club is reserved for those who shoot at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from deep and 90 percent from the line. This is the elite of the elite). The Portland shooting guard is shooting 51 percent from the floor, 42 percent from deep and 91 percent from the charity stripe in these blowout situations. He fits the same profile as Thompson -- an elite shooter who rarely gets to the free-throw line. He’s also someone who, until last postseason, had struggled to put up the same caliber of numbers in the postseason as the regular season.

McCollum is still a super talented scorer in tighter situations (21.4 points per 36 minutes), but he finds himself on this list because both his usage and efficiency rise when the game’s stakes are lowest. This is best illustrated by his whopping 25.4 points per 36 minutes in garbage time. The Blazers would probably benefit by figuring out how to have McCollum more involved in crunchtime simply to lessen the burden on Damian Lillard and make the offense more democratic.

Russell Westbrook

Of all the top 25 scorers, no one saw a larger gap in field-goal percentage according to the scoreboard. In close situations, Westbrook has shot 39 percent from the floor, an ugly figure for a go-to scorer. In garbage time, Westbrook’s field-goal percentage soars to 50 percent, a difference of 11 percent.

Continuing this trend, Westbrook’s shooting percentages have tumbled in postseason play over the last few years, as he failed to shoot above 40 percent in each of the last two playoffs -- both first-round exits for the Thunder. Westbrook has come up huge in the playoffs before (2016 Western Conference finals Games 3 and 4 against Golden State is a place to start, as is OKC’s 2012 run to the Finals). The Thunder hope to get more of that Westbrook in this upcoming postseason. Interestingly enough, Westbrook’s 2.7-point jump in garbage time (24.1 vs. 21.4) isn’t a matter of shooting more; he actually has seen his field-goal attempts per 36 minutes fall from 20.4 in close situations to 18.1 in garbage time. He’s just vastly more efficient when the game’s not out of hand.

Tank Pilots

Tim Hardaway Jr.

Luka Doncic is limping to the finish line and could be shut down soon. Dirk Nowitzki’s hinting that he’s giving it another go so there won’t be a last-hurrah scoring binge, a la Kobe Bryant. Throw in the fact that the Mavericks lose their first-round pick to Atlanta if it falls out of the top five on draft lottery night and you have the makings of a Tim Hardaway Jr., scoring binge.

Hardaway Jr.’s minutes have fallen from 32.6 per night in New York to 28.9 per night in Dallas, but if they pull the plug on the season, THJ could fill it up. He sees his scoring rate skyrocket when he’s not playing with Doncic, going from 15.4 points per 36 minutes with the rookie sensation to 23.0 points per 36 minutes with Doncic on the bench, per NBA.com. The icing on the cake? The Mavericks also get blown out by 11.6 points per 36 minutes with Hardaway on the floor without Doncic. Tank pilot, indeed.

Julius Randle

Tim Hardaway’s situation would only get more tanktastic if he was a free agent trying to get paid this summer. This guy, Randle, on the other hand? He’ll nuke his $9 million player option well before July 1 with the way he’s playing. This used to be Anthony Davis’ team. Then it was Jrue Holiday’s team. Now, with Holiday ailing, it’s Randle’s team -- for the next month.

Randle is an undeniable talent on the offensive end, but he gives up just as much defensively. Randle is averaging 23.8 points per game since Davis’ tanking, err, load-management program went into effect on Feb. 12. Since that point, the Pelicans surrender 110.4 points per 100 possessions to the other team when Randle is on the floor, compared to a stingy 102.8 points per 100 possessions, when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com. As long as Randle is playing, there will be buckets.

Joakim Noah

He’s back. Since the trade deadline, Noah is averaging 11.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in just 22.4 minutes per game. Translated per 36 minutes: 18.6 points, 13.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists. He’s not just filling up the box score with hollow numbers; he’s genuinely made Memphis a better team since it took a flier on him earlier this season.

The Grizzlies have him on a one-year veteran’s minimum contract so it’ll be interesting to see how they feature him down the stretch. With the way it’s going, he might play himself into a pricier contract than the Grizzlies will be willing to pay. Part of me just wants to see Noah firing up 3-pointers for the heck of it. The Grizzlies only keep their 2019 first-round pick if it falls in the top-eight. They’re currently sitting with the seventh-worst record in the NBA. I’m praying for Noah 3-bombs.

G-League Call-ups

Andre Ingram

After a disastrous season in Los Angeles, Ingram is the last hope to end the season on a high note. Brandon Ingram (not related) is out for the season with blood clots. Lonzo Ball is likely finished. Kyle Kuzma is battling a bum ankle. James is on The Brow program. It’s Andre’s time to shine.

The Lakers obviously don’t think he’s going to help them win games, otherwise they’d sign him earlier to help with a genuine playoff push. Nonetheless, it’s a heartwarming story for basketball’s Crash Davis, having made his NBA debut as a 32-year-old rookie last season. Ingram scored just 12.8 points per 36 minutes for the South Bay Lakers this season with a G League career-low 35.7 percent from 3-point land, but the Lakers figure to give him every opportunity to recreate the magic from Staples Center last April. Don’t forget about Dre.

Christian Wood

This guy can fill it up. The 23-year-old averaged 28.7 points and 13.9 rebounds per game in the G-League this season and currently ranks No. 1 all-time in career PER for the G League (yes, that’s a thing).

Here’s the issue: He’s buried on the Milwaukee Bucks’ bench. The top-seeded Bucks called Wood up from the G League last Friday, but he hasn’t gotten any burn as they try to lock up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. If the team contracts the injury bug or rests its bigs down the stretch, keep a close eye on Wood. He could be the next Hassan Whiteside, just waiting for his big-league opportunity.

Jordan McRae

The NBA journeyman is someone to watch if the Washington Wizards are finally eliminated from the playoffs. McRae actually got garbage-time burn during the 2016 Finals with the Cavs and he torched the G League this season on a two-way contract with the Wizards, averaging 30.6 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the floor and 35 percent from deep for the Capital City Go-Gos.

McRae wasn’t a great fit for a championship contending Cavs squad, but if he gets some run with the Wizards down the stretch, he could put up big scoring numbers. He’s nursing a sore Achilles at the moment, but I wouldn’t rule out a big April from the 27-year-old NBA champ. He scored 20 points in 26 minutes in a win over the Atlanta Hawks last month. More of that could be in order.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Are we getting worse at the NBA draft?

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USA Today

Are we getting worse at the NBA draft?

The Toronto Raptors just won an NBA championship without a single lottery pick on the roster. It’s true. Kawhi Leonard, the Finals MVP, was picked 15th. Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka were all picked at the back of the first round. Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw were second-rounders. Fred VanVleet and Jeremy Lin weren’t even drafted. 

Not a single top-10 pick on the team. When asked about this stunner of a fact ahead of the NBA Finals, Gasol told reporters the draft was so important to him that he was actually asleep when he found out he was selected 48th in 2007. And now he’s a champion and NBA Defensive Player of the Year.  

Said Gasol: “I don’t know what it says about the draft.”

On the topic, Lowry, who was picked 24th by Memphis in 2006, told the Toronto Sun: “Picks don’t mean anything.”

It certainly seems that way, to an extent. Not only was the Finals MVP drafted outside the lottery, but so was the presumptive regular-season MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was drafted 15th overall in 2013. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, was drafted 27th by Denver and traded for the 46th pick and cash. The DPOY before him, Draymond Green, was a second-rounder himself.

On the other side of the equation, we’ve had two massive misfires at the No.1 pick in the last six drafts. Just 20 months after being the top pick in 2017, Markelle Fultz was traded for Jonathon Simmons and what will likely be a few second-rounders. Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 pick in 2013, is out of the league.

Lottery teams prepare countless reports, stay up ungodly hours and talk to hundreds of people to help identify the next star. Teams have more data than ever and, with social media, more insight into a player’s mindset and personality traits. And yet, the draft seems as much of a crapshoot as ever and lottery teams continue to miss on stars. Just look at the NBA champions.

As we’re getting ready for Thursday night, we have to ask ourselves: Are we getting worse at the draft?

* * *

The NBA draft has always been a difficult enterprise. Clifton McNeely, the very first pick of the very first draft back in 1947 (when it was called the Basketball Association of America/BAA) never actually played a single game in the NBA. Instead, he decided to coach high school basketball. (Imagine if Zion Williamson did that).

There have been busts and always will be busts. That’s the nature of trying to look into the crystal ball. 

But are teams actually getting worse at looking into the crystal ball? 

It would stand to reason that scouting technology and the rise of analytics have raised the accuracy of front offices. Gadgets have certainly helped other industries. Short-term five-day forecasts, for example, are nearly as accurate as two-day projections were three decades ago. Netflix estimates that 75 percent of viewer activity is driven purely by its recommendation algorithms geared to predict what you’ll watch next

But the NBA draft, apparently, isn't getting any more predictive. If anything, it might be getting worse.

“It’s still a crapshoot,” said one prominent scout. “With all the available resources and new technology, we certainly haven’t gotten better.”

If the draft were perfectly predictive, the best player would always be picked first and the worst player available picked last. No undrafted players would ever step foot onto an NBA court.

Of course, that doesn’t happen. But the correlation of pick slot and win shares doesn’t seem to be getting stronger. That is, if we look into every draft since 1990, the best players -- as measured by prominent value metric win shares -- aren’t increasingly getting picked at the top, or near it. 

Let’s look at the trends. Over the last five drafts, pick slot and player production (as measured by win shares) has a correlation coefficient of -0.38, indicating a moderate negative relationship between the two variables. In less nerdy terms, as picks go down from 60 to 1, we’re seeing player win share totals going in the opposite direction -- up and up and up. It’s not a perfect minus-1.0 relationship where the closer you get to No. 1, the more value is produced. (Cash winnings at a pro golf event are a perfectly negative relationship; the lower the score, the more money won).

If drafting was completely random, we’d see a correlation coefficient of zero. If the best players were always selected 60th, we’d see a perfectly positive 1.0 relationship. As you go closer to No. 60, the better the players get. Days without shaving and beard length are a perfectly positive relationship; the more days you leave the razor on the shelf, the longer the whiskers.

Where does minus-0.38 compare? The five drafts before that (2009 to 2013), that same number was minus-.50, indicating a stronger association between draft slot and player production. The five years before that, it was minus-0.41. From 1994 to 1998, that number was minus-0.52, the strongest five-year sample in the bunch.

In sum: the last five years -- where intel on players on and off the court has skyrocketed -- haven’t been the sharpest work by NBA executives. If anything, the last half-decade of drafting seems to be more random than ever. 

To be fair, win shares may not be the most accurate metric to evaluate draft performance and even if it was, it tells only part of the story. Recent drafts may seem more inaccurate simply because players haven’t fully developed; Joel Embiid was considered a bust two years after getting drafted. And who knows, maybe Fultz becomes an All-Star in Orlando.

But even when there’s more information out there, it seems we’re not getting better at drafting. Executives have some theories as to why.

* * *

By now you’re probably wondering: Well, what about 2018? And you’re right. Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young (picks Nos. 1-5, respectively) had terrific rookie seasons. For the first time since the 1984-85 season, the top five picks in the previous NBA draft have all been selected to the NBA All-Rookie first team (there was no such thing as a All-Rookie second team that season.) 

But 2017 was horrible by comparison. The Philadelphia 76ers were so confident in Fultz that they traded a future first-round pick to the Boston Celtics in order to move up two slots to draft the University of Washington prospect No. 1 overall. The Sixers dumped him less than two years later after a bizarre string of events.

That same draft year, Donovan Mitchell, who has scored nearly 1,000 more points than the next-highest player in his class, was selected 13th overall. Kyle Kuzma, who is averaging 17.3 points per game in his NBA career, fell to pick No. 27 and was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers on draft night. 

If the 2017 draft was redone, it’s hard to imagine 18 teams passing on Atlanta Hawks big man John Collins. Denver’s Monte Morris, who averaged 24 minutes per game for the 54-win Nuggets this season, went 51st. In a do-over draft, does Morris go higher than Fultz? That it’s even a question shows how much of a gamble the draft is.

But in talking with executives (who all declined to go on the record so close to the draft), there’s something else going on here. One prevailing theory seemed to arise: They’re not getting dumber -- the players are just getting younger.

There’s something to that. I pulled up all the draft data from Basketball Reference since 1990, when Derrick Coleman was selected No. 1 overall, and analyzed the ages of the draftees. Turns out that the average age of the 2018 draft class was 20.7 years old. That’s the lowest number of all the 29 classes I studied.

Last year was such a young draft. The top five picks were 19.9, 19.3, 19.3, 18.8 and 19.1 years old, respectively. That’s the first time in NBA history that the top five picks were teenagers. To put that in perspective, as recently as 2013 -- the Anthony Bennett year -- there were no teenagers in the top five; Bennett, Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter Jr., Cody Zeller and Alex Len were all in their 20s. 

“The average age of drafted players is the lowest of all time,” noted one assistant GM. “That probably increases variance.”

That might be true, though the accuracy of the 2018 draft class figures to be an outlier. The age limit of 2005 has given rise to the one-and-done. The average age of top-five picks over the last five years is 19.3 compared to 21.9 in years 1990 to 1993. Heck, Dikembe Mutombo was the same age when he was drafted in 1991 as Bradley Beal is today (25). Michael Olowokandi was 23 when he was the No. 1 overall pick. Sure, Fultz might have been a mistake at No. 1, but at least there’s an excuse; he was barely 19 when he was drafted after a one-and-done season at Washington.

Another scout suggested one recent factor: the mock draft effect. The proliferation of mock drafts in recent years has created a false sense of general consensus. For example, NBA.com now publishes a Consensus Mock Draft that aggregates 10 different mock drafts with varying levels of intel. 

Some teams use mock drafts, especially early in the season, to outline which players they watch in tournaments and on tape. As a player moves up the mock drafts or big boards, personnel people may be trapped into confirmation bias. If a player is rising, there must be a reason why. You see what you want to see.

“A lot of guys get drafted because they’ve been on a mock draft board at certain positions for a while,” said the West scout. “It’s kind of a mob mentality. Web sites and agents are gassing it up.”

Mock drafts are supposed to be a reflection of the market, which would be a helpful resource of data. But what if the market is a mirage? With so little information on these youngsters, executives may be desperate to find clues, no matter how good or bad those clues are.

* * *

The Golden State Warriors’ dynasty launched a league-wide hunt for the next Draymond Green, who was famously picked 35th in the 2012 draft. This year, front offices will surely hear from powerful people with a task to identify the next Fred VanVleet, the undrafted Wichita State product who played so well that he got a vote for NBA Finals MVP. 

You could probably say the same for Malcom Brogdon, a 2016 second-round pick, who won NBA Rookie of the Year and became a 50-40-90 club member this season for the best regular-season team in the NBA.

There is one characteristic that Green, VanVleet and Brogdon share beyond the fact that they weren’t first round picks: They played all four years at college. 

Perhaps we’ve invested so far in the one-and-done era that there may be what I’ll call a Diploma Bias -- guys who played all four years may be undervalued in the market. These prospects are usually labeled as “low upside” players, but VanVleet just proved his ceiling as one of the best players on a Finals team. Same with Draymond Green and Danny Green, the latter of whom went 46th after four years at North Carolina.

Sure, one-and-done players may be sexy because they did so well in just one year of experience, but it’s still, you know, one year of data. One executive sees the one-and-done problem having a compounding effect.

“Whoever plays in college next year won’t play against Zion Williamson,” said a front office executive. “That reduces their competitive environment.”

Which makes it tougher to evaluate, even with technology and analytics.

“Although there is more information, the signal in that information has dropped,” the executive said.

This isn’t to say that Cam Johnson, who is 23 years old after his senior year at UNC, should go No. 1 over Zion. But it might mean that he’s being unfairly punished for his age. For those who are looking at the next Draymond Green, it may be worth taking a look at Brandon Clarke, who is 22.8 years old but shares much of the same versatility and defensive acumen that we heard about Green. The same goes for Virginia’s defender, De’Andre Hunter, who is 21 and a half.

While everyone chases the next kid and bemoans how hard it is to draft in today’s environment, it might make more sense to zig when everyone zags. Old may be the new young.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

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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