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Howard, Nash arrive for Lakers' championship push

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Howard, Nash arrive for Lakers' championship push

LOS ANGELES (AP) On one side of the Los Angeles Lakers' practice court, Dwight Howard is shooting free throws and talking defense with Pau Gasol. On the other end, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are plotting out a pick-and-roll play with step-by-step precision.

And somewhere in the middle, Metta World Peace's mind is blowing.

``Everybody on the starting five has led their own team and been the go-to guy, the best player on a team,'' World Peace said. ``We've all been the man somewhere else, and now we're together. It's unbelievable. They're all rock stars, but everybody has a great attitude. It's a great time, great time for us.''

The Lakers are a fantasy basketball team brought to life this fall. Thanks to the nimble offseason moves of general manager Mitch Kupchak, Los Angeles has assembled one of the most accomplished starting lineups in NBA history, from Nash's MVP awards and Bryant's scoring superlatives to Howard's defensive dominance and Gasol's international acclaim.

Whether those accomplishments translate into championship success will be learned over the next several months. The Lakers are loaded with talent, but it's mostly confined to the top half of their roster - and they're not close to the NBA's youngest team.

But with 82 games and the postseason still in front of them, the Lakers are incredibly optimistic about the chance they've been given to add a 17th championship banner to the Staples Center rafters. Los Angeles has said almost nothing about Miami, Oklahoma City, Boston, San Antonio or the other NBA title contenders in the preseason, focusing entirely on the work still necessary to turn this disparate group of All-Stars into a cohesive unit.

``We're going to be a really good team, but we've got a lot of work in front of us right now,'' said Bryant, the fifth-leading scorer in NBA history beginning his 17th season with the Lakers. ``We're not close to a finished product, and the teams that we want to compete with have all had their main groups together longer. We've got to keep improving every day, every week, and learning how to play together.''

Howard, a six-time All-Star with the Orlando Magic, was acquired by Los Angeles in a four-team deal involving Andrew Bynum last August. Although Howard has just one year left on his contract, he has embraced the Lakers' tradition and history, making it clear he's quite determined to follow in the footsteps of Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan.

``This is a great franchise, and I'm so grateful to be a part of it,'' Howard said. ``It's a motivation to look up on the wall and see all of those great retired jerseys. It's just a blessing to be here. I still can't believe it, really.''

On the opening day of training camp, Bryant designated the easygoing center as his successor as the Lakers' franchise player when the 34-year-old Kobe walks away, perhaps just two years from now.

Bryant isn't done yet, however - and he has never played with a point guard of Nash's abilities. The two-time MVP agreed to move to Los Angeles in a sign-and-trade to stay closer to his three children in Phoenix, yet he seems to be an ideal fit with the Lakers, whose biggest positional deficiency has been at point guard for several years.

Nash still isn't sure how all of the Lakers' pieces will fit together, but after several mostly mediocre years with the Suns, the 38-year-old Canadian is grateful for a real chance to chase his first ring.

``We're covering a lot of ground in training camp, with the new offense and all the new guys,'' Nash said. ``We're getting into a competitive space, though. You can see how these guys are coming together. We know we've got a chance to be a really good team.''

Coach Mike Brown has the keys to this impressive vehicle, and he acknowledges he's mostly trying not to crash it. He has installed elements of the Princeton offense to encourage the Lakers to be mobile and creative on offense, but the defense-minded coach is most excited about a unit backstopped by Howard, the shot-blocking defensive dynamo.

``The big thing I've been telling these guys on defense is that they don't have to gamble,'' Howard said. ``We're solid on D. We just need to work hard for 24 seconds, get the rebound, and we're out.''

Much of that confidence is based on Howard, who is still a bit peeved he didn't win another Defensive Player of the Year award last spring despite his early end to the season for back surgery. Bynum thrived on defense at times, but the Lakers believe no center can match Howard's combination of athleticism and intelligence.

``He can make plays defensively that no big man outside of Bill Russell can make,'' Bryant said.

The Lakers' weaknesses might include their bench, which was the NBA's least productive group last season. Antawn Jamison, the high-scoring forward who has mostly spent his 15-year career as the best player on bad teams, should inject more offense as a reserve, while Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon will provide a new look in the backcourt. Jordan Hill, Steve Blake and Devin Ebanks return from last year.

But it's tough to worry about the Lakers while Howard, Nash, Bryant, Gasol and World Peace are running drills together in practice.

They're still getting to know each other, but they all sense the potential to become something greater than the sum of their parts.

``You don't get an opportunity like this too often in life,'' Gasol said. ``We're all excited to go on this journey together.''

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More trust in Brett Connolly is leading to a career year

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More trust in Brett Connolly is leading to a career year

After all the pomp and circumstance of the Capitals’ banner raising to start the season was over, a hockey game still needed to be played. That night, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov took their familiar spots on the top line. On their right, was Caps forward Brett Connolly who had earned a chance to compete for that top spot during Tom Wilson’s suspension.

That night was a very early indication to Connolly that things were going to be different this season. Todd Reirden is not Barry Trotz.

Connolly first signed with Washington in 2016. A cast off of the Boston Bruins as they did not offer him a qualifying offer to retain his rights as a restricted free agent, Connolly needed a team to take a chance on him. The Caps did, signing him to a one-year deal worth $850,000. Connolly responded with 15 goals and 23 points for Washington, earning him a new two-year, $3 million contract to stick around.

Despite that, however, Connolly never seemed to gain the full trust of head coach Barry Trotz. Connolly averaged just 12:00 worth of ice time per game last season over 70 games.

“Obvioulsy the last couple years you'd like to play a little more, but I knew that with the way that he was coaching and the way Barry was handling me, that was going to be my role for that,” Connolly said. “I took pride it that last year, but this year's a little different.”

Though Connolly’s stay on the top line was brief, he is averaging over two minutes more of ice time per game than last season and it is clear Reirden envisioned him having an increased role.

“I liked how he came into camp,” Reirden said. “I think we had good discussions about a plan for him going into the year. There was room for growth still in his game and he's still a young player.”

“[Reirden] has been really good with me and making sure my minutes are a little higher,” Connolly said. “Obviously, you've still got to earn that, but he's put me in situations to succeed. It's been nice to deliver on that a little bit.”

In just 29 games this season, Connolly has five goals and 18 points. His 13 assists sit just three shy of his career high set in 2015-16 over the course of 71 games. He is currently on pace for a 50-point season which would shatter his previous career high of 27.

Increased playing time should naturally result in increased production, but Connolly has not been a passenger getting carried by better teammates. He has played all through the lineup and keeps producing regardless of the situation.

“There's a lot more trust in me to play in all situations and move up and down the lineup,” Connolly said. “I've played all over the lineup which is nice. It's nice to know that when you're playing well you can be moved up at any time. It's been a really positive change for me and I'm happy that I could deliver a little bit and play well when I am given those opportunities.”

In 2017, Connolly was a healthy scratch for six of the team’s seven playoff games. Trotz elected to go with seven defensemen in the lineup, something he had not done the entire season, rather than dress Connolly.

Reirden has taken a different approach this season and it is paying dividends both for the player and the team.

“He's been really important part of us getting through these injuries because we've used him on the power play in different areas as well,” Reirden said. “I think he's had a strong season and not surprised to see that his numbers are following along, but to me it started with his commitment this summer and then to start the year, the confidence he had and the kind of belief in using him in a different way than maybe he's been used in the past that he could generate some higher numbers.”

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Jay Gruden not considering changes to his coaching staff

Jay Gruden not considering changes to his coaching staff

The Redskins gave up 40 points and more than 400 yards in a loss to the Giants last Sunday, and that was without Odell Beckham suited up for New York. 

The Redskins have lost four straight games, and five of six, while giving up more than 30 points three times. 

The Redskins surrendered more than 200 rushing yards to the Giants, and have not held an opponent under 100 yards rushing in their last six games. 

You get the idea. 

After the Washington defense got out to an impressive start to the season, things have fallen apart down the stretch.

Despite the struggles, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden has no intention of shaking up his coaching staff.

"No. Not really," Gruden said on the Redskins Talk podcast when asked about any coaching changes. 

As the Redskins struggle and lose their grip on a playoff spot, it's not unheard of to think some staff changes might be coming. The Panthers fired two defensive assistants last weekend, and as the NFL season approaches the finish line, more coaches will lose their jobs. 

In Washington though, it seems the staff is safe. Still, the Giants loss stings. 

The Redskins' offense has been decimated by injuries, particularly at quarterback and along the offensive line. There was some leeway for a loss to New York, but not when the home team got down 40-0 to a 4-8 Giants team. 

That type of deficit brings questions. Questions about the coaches, questions about effort.

On Sunday, Gruden made clear he understands his future is week to week.

"We have a game to win next week in Jacksonville," the coach said. "We have to go about trying to find a way to do it."

On Monday, he made clear his assistants are safe. As far as he is concerned anyway. 

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