Kobe needs help in L.A.; might LeBron answer the call?
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It’s difficult to pick against the defending champion Lakers playing the Oklahoma City Thunder, even after the Thunder evened the series Saturday with a blowout win and has basically outplayed the Lakers in all but the early part of the first game.
Many have felt the Lakers wouldn’t repeat, though with no one truly sticking out in the Western Conference no one was sure whom.
The larger issue is we may have seen the best of Kobe Bryant, and perhaps the time is becoming right for Kobe and the Lakers to open their arms to LeBron James.
Yes, that again.
I opened that discussion earlier this season, but it was somewhat pooh poohed in L.A.—except by sagacious announcer and former NBA center Mychal Thompson—in the notion Kobe would never accept another alpha male and the Lakers didn’t need him, anyway.
Well, look again.
All of a sudden, Bryant is working through a series of injuries and more than 44,000 minutes played, just short of Michael Jordan’s career total. And we know those last two seasons Jordan was nowhere near the player he was as he began having knee issues, as Bryant has.
Bryant, of course, having come into the NBA at 18, is just 31. So he has years left. But if he wants to be a champion again or have any sort of run to reach or surpass Jordan’s six championships, which he covets, he’ll need a lot of help.
Insiders among the Lakers are saying Bryant doesn’t feel the Lakers have enough anymore. There are questions again about the toughness of the three interior players, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. Derek Fisher has been no match for the Thunder athleticism and the Ron Artest deal is looking bad as Trevor Ariza seemed to fit better. Lakers are saying Artest has less abilities and understanding of the offense than any player they’ve ever had.
I know I’ve said LeBron ought to take a look at joining the Bulls because of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, even if the Cavs win the series. But if LeBron wants glamour—he is likely to skip the USA team this summer to make a movie—and a chance to play with great players, then maybe it should be the Lakers.
It would, of course, be a disaster for the Cavs, but they could recoup some with a sign-and-trade, which James would need to make the maximum money. If he demanded to leave, do the Cavs have much choice? Say the Lakers send Bynum and Odom and then the Cavs can out together a competitive group with a young, low post center, Antawn Jamison, Odom and Mo Williams. Hey, it could be worse. Seems like a playoff team.
And then it’s the dream team of Kobe, LeBron and Gasol. They’d need some more size, you assume, but players always want to come to L.A. And the Lakers generally take care of their players.
It’s obvious the Lakers need an injection of youth and athleticism to continue to compete.
And LeBron even sent a bouquet to Bryant after beating the Bulls Sunday when James was asked about starting slowly and taking few shots, as Bryant attempting just 10 shots and none in the first in his game 4 loss. The talk in L.A. is Bryant was upset with Phil Jackson questioning his shots in earlier games and not getting the ball inside enough. After the game, Bryant said he played exactly how he planned to.
“For what he’s done in his career, for what he’s done this season, for him to get flack about not shooting the ball is ridiculous,” said James. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Does LeBron want to stay with that group in Cleveland? There couldn’t be a worse team to join than the Knicks for talent. The Bulls look good comparatively with a solid nucleus, but they don’t have the sign-and-trade guy who’d make sense for the Cavs. And LeBron would have to be the top guy coming in and Kobe would have to understand that. You figure he might welcome that the way he’s struggling now coming off just 10 shots in Saturday’s blowout loss.
Like Phil always told me, never say never in the NBA.
Sam Smith’s free agent tracker
-- Here’s my newest occasional feature, the free agent tracker to see what’s up with the top summer free agents and what they may be thinking.
LeBron James: Lakers? I don’t know, but he cannot be thrilled for the future with his supporting cast and with the aged Shaq and Ilgauskas about how he’ll compete for years with no true starting big man. For now, probably staying.
Dwyane Wade: It may have been a metaphor the way Wade was carried off the court toward the end of the Game 3 loss. It was just cramps, though not a just if you have them. We may not appreciate him enough with that awful supporting cast, the worst among all the playoff teams. He’s going to be the last guy to sign if he returns because he’s going to wait to see what the Heat do and they have a lot to do. They had to love Wade at practice while being down 0-3: We play well together," Wade said if he and James, "Myself, LeBron, Chris (Bosh), certain guys are in the driver's seat to decide where they want to go. You're not thinking about it. You're not worried about it. But I'm sure they hear it a lot." But then Wade went out and won a game virtually on his own with a career playoff high 46 Sunday to avoid being swept by the Celtics in what was being called perhaps Wade’s last home game in Miami. I’d doubt it. He’s likely still leaning toward staying with the Bulls a bailout fallback position.
Chris Bosh: Missed the playoffs for the fifth time in seven seasons and second straight. The Raptors pretty much said last week they’re looking hard at a sign-and-trade. Bosh wants one because he wants the money. The Raptors would love to have Gasol if the Lakers believe Bosh with Bynum can fix what ails them. It looked worse for Bosh as he sat wherever he is to see Manu Ginobili not miss a minute with an equally broken face. I don’t feel either’s pain, but Bosh bailed out on the end of the season and likely cost the Raptors a playoff spot. Did he sacrifice his team to save his free agency? Whomever goes for him and pays that max deal with have to wonder. He’s most likely to leave in the best sign-and-trade the Raptors can get. Probably Miami heads the list, though he won’t play center and they don’t have one. The sign-and-trade possibilities are endless.
Joe Johnson: That blowout loss in Milwaukee Saturday where no one else but him showed up has to leave him wondering. There’s still a question whether they’ll pay him a max. He definitely wants a sign-and-trade because he’s 29 this summer and with a five year deal no one is paying him $20 million when he’s 34. His team hardly looks special, but he’s so quiet no one truly knows how hungry he is to be with a better team. How about this stat? In the Hawks last 10 playoff games, they have lost nine by an average of 25.6 per game. The 18-point loss in Milwaukee Saturday was by the fewest of the losses. They play way too much isolation and it will tell a lot about Johnson if he wants to stay in that system. He’s likely leaving toward leaning with the Bulls a top choice if they can figure a sign-and-trade. If the Nets get John Wall in the draft, they may have a better sign-and-trade with Devin Harris.
Amar’e Stoudemire: He’s been the key guy for the Suns late season surge and it would seem you could not have credibility letting him go. The consensus is he’s Miami’s first choice, but the Heat has no one for a sign-and-trade. Michael Beasley? Hardly. He’ll likely be dealt for a draft pick. You’d think the Suns would have to gulp and pay him. Which is the rumor now, though my guess is if they sign him it is to trade him for a package of players or perhaps someone who is losing a free agent, like the Raptors and Bosh.
Carlos Boozer: He’s been on his usual 19 and 10 in the playoffs with the injured Jazz doing remarkably well. What’s a concern with him, beside injuries over the year, is two free throws in each of the first two games as he settles for jumpers so much. The question is whether the Jazz want to keep him or Paul Millsap. The latest is the Jazz is favoring keeping Boozer, though the series could change that. Boozer has long said he likes Chicago or Miami.
David Lee: His game is improving, but he finished his fifth season without ever being in the playoffs and is sitting home again and no one ever has seen him in a game that matters. He’s a nice piece, but the Knicks are not that interested and he’ll be waiting for someone to overpay him, maybe the Nets.
Ray Allen: He’s not expected to be retained by the Celtics, but will be 35 this summer and considered a short term player who might land with a contender for a one or two-year deal.
Al Harrington: A scoring reserve type player who’ll likely hook on with someone’s midlevel exception, though he also has some injury concerns.
Rudy Gay: A restricted free agent whom it likely will take way overpaying to get the Grizzlies not to match. But he’s not considered a game changer and also never has been in a playoff game.
Luis Scola: A restricted free agent the Rockets are expected not to let go. Also sitting home with no playoffs.
Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming are not expected to opt out. Manu Ginobili, Bryant and Marcus Camby have signed extensions and are off the market.
NBA news and notes
-- See, I always knew he was faking. Jazz players have been talking about being physical with Carmelo Anthony to upset him in their opening round series. "We want to bother them, especially Carmelo," Carlos Boozer said. "The big key for them is 'Melo. Chauncey gets them going but 'Melo in the engine.” Jazz coach Jerry Sloan just sneered: "Don't buy into that. That's like Michael Jordan being sick. Don't buy that stuff."… The Hawks are privately encouraged about Joe Johnson not leaving as a free agent because Johnson seems comfortable with the anonymity of being a Hawk. “I don’t mind flying under the radar,” Johnson told the Atlanta Constitution. “I have been like that pretty much my whole life.” The Hawks are taking that to believe Johnson doesn’t want to be in a major market. Still, it was shocking to see Stubhub.com offering Hawks Game 1 playoff tickets for 89 cents the day of the game. The team also was handing out free playoff tickets at team events in the days before the game. The Atlanta Braves baseball game outdrew the Hawks Game 2 on local TV. And can you imagine if there were a car race and spring football game on? Or even hog calling?
-- Celtics defensive assistant, Tom Thibodeau, is being mentioned as a top candidate to coach the Nets. Former Nets coach Lawrence Frank could have the inside track on the 76ers job if Ed Stefanski stays. If Stefanski goes, the speculation of Larry Brown will come in. Doug Collins, whose daughter lives in the area and whose son is a top assistant at Duke, also is said to be someone who could be a major addition as he has a long history with the franchise. Though there could be change in Miami the way they fell behind Boston and Collins’ name has come up as a big name replacement if the Heat decide to make a move. … It was illuminating to hear Brown after the Bobcats went behind 3-0 say, “I never thought I’d coach a team that would shoot that number (five of 23) threes. It didn’t matter if Dwight (Howard) was in or out (of the game).” It suggests Brown will want major roster changes, and owner Michael Jordan has said he’d like to give this group another season together. Jameer Nelson again dominated Raymond Felton, who is not expected to be resigned, and they’re above the luxury tax if they just sign Tyrus Thomas to the qualifying offer. Jordan says he doesn’t plan to pay the luxury tax. … Meanwhile, Dwight Howard likely is sending a big thank you to Nelson for his Defensive of the Year award as Howard gets so many blocks because Nelson routinely gets blown by on defense. … How did Brad Miller get so popular? It seems the Knicks and Rockets may have been leaking interest in Miller as a free agent this summer with reports in local media. Though with the increased salary cap money the Bulls should have money left to make an above minimum offer to Miller.
-- Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo actually pointed to losing Anthony Parker as one major reason for the Raptors’ disappointing season. There were anonymous quotes from team employees of “too much partying,” which alluded to Hedo Turkoglu. But there’s also been the unprecedented issue of so many international players, the most in the league. The result has been a locker room divide that doesn’t exist anywhere else with international players in a large enough group they separate from the U.S. players. "One thing that goes unnoticed or unwritten is that we failed at bridging some of the relationships per say in the locker room," Colangelo told Toronto media. "That's something that I can't say enough, because (Parker) was such a vital part and a stable force in that scenario whereas this year we didn't seem to have that." Parker played overseas in Israel for several years and was seen as a player who helped keep the disparate groups together. … Pacers GM Larry Bird called Danny Granger the face of the franchise, but also told reporters, "I think sometimes, he rushes into things. He regressed a little bit." Granger, for the mismatches he has, is a poor rebounder and shoots way too many threes. I believe Bird was trying to gently say Granger is one of the league’s most overrated players because he doesn’t seem to impact winning. The Timberwolves reportedly tried to get him with Al Jefferson and you wonder if they offer will surface again. … Magic coach Stan Van Gundy was fined $35,000 by the NBA for comments about officiating. Though I believe that was a smokescreen. Van Gundy, who refreshingly rarely has an unsaid thought, said he thought Jordan was getting too much credit for the Bobcats season instead of the guys who deserve it, Brown and the players. Van Gundy also said he wasn’t sure Jordan was the greatest ever player. “(Jordan’s) certainly right there with anybody and he may be (the greatest),” said Van Gundy. But the people who say it’s obvious and everything else. think maybe don’t know enough history. I think in the last 20, 25 years, he’s the best. But to me, the two other guys I think of are Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain… the things they did. We didn’t have the saturation on TV. I don’t even know how many times Oscar Robertson was on national TV his entire career.” I don’t believe this is permitted to be said in the NBA and think that’s why the commissioner fined Van Gundy. … Stern, by the way, seems awfully cranky as he lambasted Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, whom he blamed for the playoff ritual of blaming referees and threatened suspensions. Stern, who had fined Van Gundy already, also condemned Van Gundy for noting the long breaks in games in round one, which is done to get all the games n TV, which I heartily endorse. Though if Stern really wanted to do something about the lack of respect referees get, unfairly I agree, he’d put a muzzle on his stars. Bulls players privately have been saying they are shocked at the language LeBron James uses toward referees, who just turn away as they know they cannot eject the stars like James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. … I liked this one from James on those now annoying MVP chants for everyone but Jarrett Jack: "It's an all-league thing now. Everybody is an MVP when they go to the free-throw line late in the game when they're winning. I don't know when it started. It's like the wave now."
-- Quite the salary drive for Jermaine O’Neal, who was five of 31 in the 0-3 playoff start for the Heat. O’Neal then had his first two shot blocked in Game 4 and then committed a pair of turnovers and ended with two points. … Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was under siege for the close of Game 3 as he let go the foul to give as Paul Pierce lined up Dorell Wright for the game winner and then let Pierce get to the right elbow, his favorite spot, without a double. Asked afterward when was the last time he hit a winner, Pierce said last year’s playoff against the Bulls, which we saw when the Bulls let him hit three straight from that spot to win one game. I thought everyone watched that series. … The Mavs went down 3-1 and now Rick Carlisle, who has been through a few jobs with whispers about a rough demeanor with players and staff, could have trouble. You know if the Mavs after spending all that money midseason lose in the first round Mark Cuban will be taking names. It also didn’t help as Carlisle, curiously, benched Caron Butler and Shawn Marion in the Game 3 loss to play J.J. Berea. Marion said he can't be effective if he's “pulled in and out like a rag doll.” Butler didn’t complain, but it seemed ludicrous to bench his scoring and defending ability for a smurf like Berea in a huge game. Cuban cannot like how his money is being used.
-- Tony Parker came up big in the Spurs’ Game 3 win with 23 points and is averaging 19 points off the bench after returning from injury. But this is looking like the end of Parker’s nine-year run with the Spurs. Parker is going into his final season at $13.5 million, and it seems George Hill, who was huge in the Game 4 win Sunday, is being groomed as a successor, a much cheaper one. Manu Ginobili got the big extension and basically plays point down the stretch. The Spurs haven’t approached Parker on a contract. The Spurs are well into the luxury tax in a tough market with the extension, and you can see the Spurs trading Parker into one of those big salary cap slots or taking on a cheaper player and some picks. The Heat? Parker with Dwyane Wade and still enough money for another top player? Maybe the Spurs take Michael Beasley and picks and save money, too. It’s also clear for Wade to stay the Heat need a point guard. The Knicks would be an obvious one if they hadn’t traded basically all the firsts for the next 50 years with Parker’s movie and TV star wife. Parker’s fate could become one of the big stories of the summer’s free agency market. … With George Karl recuperating from cancer treatments, team VP Rex Chapman has become something of the official spokesman as acting coach Adrian Dantley isn’t much of a confrontational talker. And getting the blame now, of course, for being down 3-1 to the Jazz. Chapman even complained the Jazz players took to heart comments by former Jazz player Matt Harpring they had to play meaner and take advantage of what Harpring said was Carmelo Anthony backing off against physical play. Though what seems to have a greater effect is Paul Millsap absolutely dominating Kenyon Martin (22 and 19 in Game 3), Chris Andersen becoming a disinterested sideshow, J.R. Smith not being held accountable for any shot and Chauncey Billups, unable to deal with Deron Wiliams, suffering some of that decline the Pistons felt would occur a year ago when they traded him somewhat prematurely, all this against an undermanned Jazz team mostly counted out with Mehmet Okur’s Achilles injury.
-- One of the most sought after bench players in the league the last few years has been Portland’s Rudy Fernandez, who has often complained about playing time. But GMs say the Trail Blazers have refused to talk about any deal. Perhaps that changes now as starting for Brandon Roy he was six of 17 and averaging about seven points. When the ‘Blazers beat the Suns Saturday with Roy making a dramatic return, Fernandez, who had been sharp and short with the media for questioning him, was benched for Jerryd Bayless, who was considered key in the victory as Steve Nash wasn’t able to hide as much on defense. … The Blazers quietly made a huge deal for Marcus Camby as without cap room they were thus able to resign him and come up with one of the reasonably coveted summer free agents. … The Suns have taken pride in better defense in winning two of the first three, but now their offense actually suffered as in Game 4 Portland did a good job clogging the lane and Suns kept going to their screen/roll with Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire without swinging the ball to the three point shooters much. … Phil Jackson on not receiving any votes for coach of the year: "I think we underachieved and most people probably recognize that.” Now, Jackson is being second guessed for not sitting Kobe Bryant more during the season to rest him as Gregg Popovich does with Tim Duncan, though Jackson never could get Jordan to sit, either. It may also be why Bryant more quickly will approach those kind of Washington seasons Jordan had at the end of his career despite how hard he works.