Is there a Lonzo trade out there?

(photo cred Sportsnewsinstant.com)

Immediate follow up question: Should the Lakers even consider trading Lonzo?

Do yourself a favor and search “Lonzo Trade” on Twitter. Grab a coffee, maybe a snack wrap from McDonalds, and settle in somewhere cozy. Then look at all the angry tweets from Lakers fans, urging Magic and Pelinka to ship away their young point guard for a whichever talented guard exploded for their team that night. Last night, it was Kemba Walker (more on him to come.)

There is a case to be made for trading Lonzo, despite him still possessing a high ceiling. On the other hand, a case can be made that Los Angeles might be one of the worst fits for Lonzo regarding his development; he may never reach that high ceiling next to LeBron.

Therefore, this will be a blog of five parts: two quick arguments on why and why not Lonzo should be traded, two possible trade destinations and a final statement. Buckle up, folks.

1. Taking my Ball and going home

When the UCLA product was in his pre-draft process, it was easy to see how scouts fell in love with his ability to pass the ball. People were comparing Ball to Jason Kidd, and saying that his floor would be someone like Ricky Rubio, but with the potential to be a better shooter and better defender.

I cannot emphasize his extraordinary vision enough. Ball simply sees reads more quickly than other guards; some guards don’t even see them at all. Take this clip below, for example. Ball starts passing the ball to a cutting Kyle Kuzma before Kuz even leaves from his spot in the corner.

The majority of NBA guards either won’t see this read, or when they do, it is a step late which will force the cutter to either adjust for the score, or allow the defense to catch up. Ball’s feel for the game is innate, and it shows in his passing ability.

Ball’s defense has been encouraging as well. He has good lateral quickness, is a smooth athlete, and has a decent wingspan to match that 6’6″ frame. At times, his defensive IQ is just as good as his offensive IQ, and when the effort is there, Ball shows the potential to be a plus defender who is capable of guarding multiple positions. See for yourself.

At the end of the day, Ball has been both frustrating and tantalizing at times. His rookie season stats, however, put him in historic standing. Take a peak at home many players averaged at least 10 points, 7 assists and 1.5 steals their rookie year.

Query Results Table
Crit Crit Crit Crit
Rk Player Season Age Tm Lg PTS AST STL WS
1 Magic Johnson 1979-80 20 LAL NBA 18.0 7.3 2.4 10.5
2 Chris Paul 2005-06 20 NOK NBA 16.1 7.8 2.2 10.4
3 Ben Simmons 2017-18 21 PHI NBA 15.8 8.2 1.7 9.2
4 Mark Jackson 1987-88 22 NYK NBA 13.6 10.6 2.5 7.6
5 Phil Ford 1978-79 22 KCK NBA 15.9 8.6 2.2 5.7
6 Sherman Douglas 1989-90 23 MIA NBA 14.3 7.6 1.8 4.4
7 Allen Iverson 1996-97 21 PHI NBA 23.5 7.5 2.1 4.1
8 Jason Kidd 1994-95 21 DAL NBA 11.7 7.7 1.9 3.7
9 Tim Hardaway 1989-90 23 GSW NBA 14.7 8.7 2.1 3.3
10 Isiah Thomas 1981-82 20 DET NBA 17.0 7.8 2.1 2.3
11 Kenny Smith 1987-88 22 SAC NBA 13.8 7.1 1.5 2.2
12 John Wall 2010-11 20 WAS NBA 16.4 8.3 1.8 2.2
13 Lonzo Ball 2017-18 20 LAL NBA 10.2 7.2 1.7 2.0
14 Ricky Rubio 2011-12 21 MIN NBA 10.6 8.2 2.2 2.0
15 Gary Grant 1988-89 23 LAC NBA 11.9 7.1 2.0 -0.4
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/18/2018.

2. It’s your Ball now

Sometimes, we have a tendency to overthink the game.

Lonzo Ball’s best skill is his ability to create for others. In order to do this, he must have the ball in his hands often. Playing alongside LeBron James, Brandon Ingram and Kuzma, Ball does not have the ball often enough to maximize his impact on the game. Logic.

Specifically, I compared Ball’s average second per touch to other players who either were among the league leaders in assists or had a similar playing style to Ball. John Wall, Ricky Rubio and Ben Simmons, as well as a plethora of other creators, all averaged more seconds per touch than Ball (NBA.com) What’s more, they led Ball by considerable margins as well, as Lonzo averaged a mediocre 3.82 seconds per touch.

Yet, Ball finished the league 13th in total touches per game last season. There is conflicting data here. How can Ball get so many touches while not keeping the ball in his hands for too long?

The answer lies in the Lakers’ pace. They are 3rd in the league in pace, which means they get up and down the court a lot. They are 2nd in the league in fast break points and also 2nd in total possessions per game. These dudes fly up and down the court, and Lonzo is often the creator. His grab and go ability allows him to do this.

So what do we make of this?

Lonzo is a beast at finding people in transition. He makes full court outlet passes reminiscent of Kevin Love. Yet, Lonzo struggles in the pick and roll. In order to reach his ceiling, Lonzo has to improve this area, something of which he is surely capable of doing. Ball finished in the 17th percentile for pick and roll ball handlers last year, and despite improving to the 45th percentile so far this year, Lonzo still hasn’t mastered this part of his game.

With LeBron and other creators on the Lakers, Lonzo will not get the chance to develop fully into a complete NBA playmaker. If Magic and co. want Lonzo to be a transition god who takes 57 percent of his field goals from 3-point land, then so be it. But they would be wasting an entire area of his game which if developed correctly, could see Lonzo become one of the best point guards in the league.

As of right now, the Lakers are using him as a 3&D, grab and go fastbreak leader, although he can be so much more. If that is their plan for Lonzo, why not trade him for an established star who is a better fit besides LeBron? Speaking of which…

3. Charlotte, an old trading partner

We all remember how the Hornets gave Kobe Bryant to the Lakers, right? Perhaps now is a time for karma to swing back Charlotte’s way.

Kemba Walker is one of the most underrated stars in this game. His pick and roll game is elite. Kemba finished in the 92nd percentile as a PnR ball handler last year for a dismal Hornets team. The dude’s lack of team success probably leads to him being overlooked as one of the league’s premier guards. But let’s see how his last last season compares to the 2017-18 season of other stars such as Kyrie Irving, Dame Lillard, Kyle Lowry and John Wall.

Per Game Table
Rk Player Season Age G FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% eFG% FT FTA FT% TRB AST STL TOV PTS
1 Kyrie Irving 2017-18 25 60 8.9 18.1 .491 2.8 6.8 .408 .568 3.9 4.4 .889 3.8 5.1 1.1 2.3 24.4
2 Damian Lillard 2017-18 27 73 8.5 19.4 .439 3.1 8.6 .361 .519 6.8 7.4 .916 4.5 6.6 1.1 2.8 26.9
3 Kyle Lowry 2017-18 31 78 5.2 12.1 .427 3.1 7.6 .399 .553 2.9 3.3 .854 5.6 6.9 1.1 2.3 16.2
4 Kemba Walker 2017-18 27 80 7.4 17.0 .431 2.9 7.5 .384 .516 4.5 5.3 .864 3.1 5.6 1.1 2.2 22.1
5 John Wall 2017-18 27 41 6.8 16.3 .420 1.5 4.1 .371 .466 4.3 5.9 .726 3.7 9.6 1.4 3.9 19.4
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/18/2018.

Kemba is right on pace with his colleagues. This year, he is putting up a crazy 28.7/6.1/4.5 stat line while taking 10.3 triples per game and making a wild 37 percent of them. He is wonderful fit next to LeBron too.

Not only does Kemba have the intangibles to play with LeBron, his on-court style meshes well with what the King needs. For instance, Kemba is more than a ball-dominant point guard. This season, he is taking 4.5 3-pointers per game on catch and shoot opportunities, and sinking 38 percent of them. Wow.  This shows that Kemba can move around on off-ball action when LeBron is handling the rock.

Yet, Kemba can also take some of the offensive load away from LeBron. He is a pick and roll savant who can dish to open teammates or hit a deadly pull-up. I’m not kidding about the “deadly” part. Walker hits 45 percent of his 10 pull-up attempts per game, and 37 percent of his 5 pull-up triples per game. So far this year, those are better numbers than what CP3, Lowry, Irving, Lillard, Wall and that Harden guy have put up. He is a late game closer, for sure.

On a one-year, expiring deal, Los Angeles would have to get a wink-wink deal from Kemba that he would resign. But, the man is an excellent fit next to Lebron. He will turn 29 this season and seems to be getting better as he grows older.

Charlotte has a lot of incentive to make this deal too. They have a promising young core in the much improved Malik Monk and Miles Bridges. They cannot let Kemba walk in free agency for nothing in return. Landing Ball would be a steal. Charlotte could bottom out and pick up a high draft pick this year, giving them four solid players to build around going forward.

I know what you are thinking: “Lonzo Ball has more trade value than Kemba Walker.” Well, not so fast. What are the odds Lonzo Ball turns into a two-time All-Star and ever stars a season the way Kemba has this year? A better question: What are the odds Lonzo Ball ever plays as good as Kemba is playing this year? Of course, we all have differing opinions. But, Magic Johnson and company should seriously consider reaching out to the Michael Jordan and the Hornets.

The Trade:

kemba-trade.png

4. What’s up, Milwaukee

This is the one I will catch a lot of pushback on, I can feel it. Well, pushback from Bucks fans, most likely.

If there is one player who will challenge Walker for most underrated in the league, it is Khris Middleton. The guy can defend four positions and beat you from all three levels offensively. This year, my guy is putting up 19 per game on 46 percent from the field and 44 percent from deep, on 7 3-point attempts per game, mind you.

A two-way star, Middleton will be receiving a max contract this offseason that likely starts around $30 million per year. Ouch.

The Bucks already have a team payroll of $126 million for this season. Let’s do some projecting here. Next season, if they resign solely Middleton and no one else, their salary will be around $110 million. Keep in mind that they still have to resign at least one of either Eric Bledsoe or Malcolm Brogdon, both of whom will not come cheap. Oh, and given that Brook Lopez is having the most efficient shooting year of his career (62.5 eFG percentage!) the Bucks may want to bring him back too.

Let’s be generous and say that Brogdon, and not Bledsoe, comes back for $12 million per year. That brings their cap up to $122 million. Congrats (sarcasm), you aren’t bringing back Lopez in this scenario, or the rejuvenated Bledsoe.

The Bucks would be cap crunched for years if they resign Middleton. He is a wonderful talent, but does a core of Giannis, Middleton and X take the Bucks to a title? Hmmm. Let me present to you another option.

Send Lonzo Ball to Milwaukee for Khris Middleton. Sell high on the guy and get a guard with All-NBA potential. Replacing Ball for Middleton will see the Bucks salary (before any signings) be at $89 million next year. This gives them the flexibility to bring back both Lopez and either Brogdon or Bledsoe.

Lonzo would be a much better fit next to Giannis than he would next to Lebron. Despite having the Greek Freak on their team, Coach Bud and the Bucks still run a ton of action through Bledsoe, their point guard. In fact, Bledsoe is assisting on 28 percent of their buckets while on the court. Pretty good.

The Bucks play a style of basketball that would allow Lonzo to take advantage of his push-the-pace style. They are 5th in pace this year and 8th in fast break points. A Giannis-Ball fast break connection should give you shivers. Yet, they also run a great combo of free-flowing sets and traditional pick and roll basketball, giving Lonzo a place to develop the PnR game previously discussed.

Calm down Bucks fans, and let me tell you why you should consider this trade. In all likeliness, the Bucks ceiling with Middleton falls somewhere short of an NBA title. In a Eastern conference with a talent-heavy top four teams, you need to take a gamble to acquire top-end talent. That is the way the league has always been and will always be.

Lonzo Ball is not currently top-end talent, but he has the potential to be. If he hits, then the Bucks would be looking at an plus defensive player who is one of the best playmakers in the league and can space the floor too. Plus, he is cheap right now. Locking in Middleton means that the Bucks roster will stay the same for the foreseeable future, for better or for worse. Acquiring Ball gives Milwaukee a dice roll at supreme talent and cap flexibility for the future. Throw in another asset for good measure.

The Lakers should be all over this deal. In a lineup of Middleton, LeBron, Ingram and Hart, the Lakers would have four plus defenders who are super switchy. Also, a lineup of those four plus Kuzma gives LeBron the coveted “four shooters” lineup we want around him. Can the Lakers get better talent than Middleton, however?

middleton-trade.png

5. Closing statement

Jimmy Butler is resigning in Philadelphia. KD is not coming to LA; if he wants to be better than LeBron then he cannot play with LeBron. Klay Thompson is most likely staying put. Will DeMarcus Cousins recover from his injury, and if so does he sign in LA? Who knows. Kawhi? So far, we have heard nothing further about him coming to LA and if anything, he looks mighty comfortable in Toronto.

What’s the point? The free agency market –  or better yet, pre-agency market –  does not look too promising for the Lakers. Shoot, they couldn’t convince hometown star Paul George to sign. Don’t get me wrong, the Lakers still have a great shot at landing Kawhi. But should LA really put all their eggs in that basket?

If they strike out in free agency, a real possibility, then what does LA do next? Why not trade for Middleton or Kemba and have the leg up on resigning them? Lonzo won’t be the player he was drafted to be there, so send him out for a good return before his trade value plummets even more.

Thoughts? @Mattesposito_

PS. Here is how the rest of NBA Twitter feels about this so far…

https://twitter.com/MattEsposito_/status/1063912269539655682

 

 

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LeBron is not the Lakers Answer

LeBron James took everyone by surprise this past offseason when he signed a 4-year deal with the Lakers. The fact that he went to the warm weather of LA wasn’t surprising, but the fact that he signed a long-term contract with a team with no other superstars was. He notoriously wouldn’t sign a long-term deal in Cleveland because he reportedly didn’t trust owner Dan Gilbert.

I would love to have been in the room as Magic Johnson was pitching LeBron the next four years of his future. This is how I imagined it went:

 

Magic: Okay LeBron, picture this: You’re driving down Sunset Boulevard in your Bugatti waving at movie stars left and right. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day as you drive to practice from either one of your LA mansions. And you come to work with a lot of young, hungry guys who really want to work. You know we’ve got a really bright future, and you can put us over the edge.

LeBron: Yeah man! I love it! Sure beats Cleveland. So who you getting this summer after I sign?

Magic: Oh I’m sure PG13 will sign with us. It’s all he’s been talking about since his days in Boringsville, Indiana.

LeBron: Yeah I like his game a lot I think he compliments me really well.

*Paul Geroge re-signs with OKC*

*LeBron calls Magic*

LeBron: What happened man? I thought we were getting him?

Magic: Don’t worry baby, I got this! (I feel like Magic is a “baby” kinda guy)

LeBron: *Wipes sweat from brow/ do-rag Whew. Ha I was getting scared for a second man! So what’s the plan?

Magic: Okay so you remember how back in 2009 when the Celtics beat you in the ECF and you were complimenting Rondo’s game? How you liked his unselfishness and how he moves the ball? Well, we’re getting him 10 years later for ya! Boom! How do you like dem apples?

LeBron: oh… okay? Well, I guess he had a pretty good postseason this past year. But like what about Kawhi? How are the trade talks coming with the Spurs?

Magic: Nah, Nah, Nah. Forget him! I’m going to do one better! I’m going to sign Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, AND Michael Beasley all to one-year dea….

*LeBron hangs up the phone.

 

It’s like I was really there, right? There is absolutely no way this was the vision magic pitched LeBron back in July. And while his decision to join the Lakers was based largely on lifestyle factors and his son’s young basketball career and not necessarily winning championships, there’s no way Magic wants to waste LeBron’s prime (however long that might be– forever?).

The idea of a LeBron-led team not winning 50 games and missing the playoffs seams ludicrous. But he hasn’t had a team this inexperienced (bad) since his first stint with the Cavaliers. I’d even argue he had a better team when he came back to the Cavs in 2014. A young Kyrie and a perennial All-Star in Kevin Love at least made some sense. The national media is making this new Lakers team sound better than what James had in cleveland last season. But who’s better?

Lonzo, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram are all young, unproven assets that may or may not take that next leap. You could also throw Kyle Kuzma into that category, although his game feels like it should fit seamlessly alongside LeBron. And his veterans around him that are supposed to add immediate value is like the Island of Misfit Toys. Rondo, Lance, the guy who always wins Shaqtin’ a Fool, Beasley. How do any of those veterans, who will have to play significant minutes for them by the way, compliment LeBron at all? This would be the roster I’d put together if I wanted to punish LeBron.

So this is my thinking: Magic and Luke Walton are going to waste a year of LeBron’s prime. My guess is that Walton will play LeBron around 30 minutes a night–which is still a lot– but a big step down to what he was doing in Cleveland playing essentially the entire game. He played almost 40 minutes per night in Cleveland because when he went out, the Cavs were an actual dumpster fire. I expect something similar to happen in LA– it’ll just be a little warmer outside.

So to expect 50+ wins in the Western Conference, from this Lakers squad seems unreasonable to me. Las Vegas has them ranked second in the West to win the championship at 7-2 odds, only trailing the GS Warriors. This shows you LeBron’s influence on the league, but I doubt Vegas is considering what the smart play is for the Lakers. And that’s to take it easy this year, give LeBron some time off to do whatever, play him around 30 minutes a night, swallow the horse pill that is this season, develop the young talent, and go out in 2019 free agency and do what you should have done this past summer and get LeBron some help. Because he alone, is not LA’s answer.

Lonzo Ball vs. Rajon Rondo: Who should start for the Lakers?

Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers go into the 2018-19 season with the NBA’s most interesting roster for those who like to play mix-and-match with lineups.

LeBron James, of course, drives a lot of that intrigue. He has spent most of his 15-year career as a point guard who is listed at small forward, who sometimes plays power forward and shooting guard and center. The only job LeBron hasn’t taken on yet is that of the sixth man.

But after the Lakers acquired LeBron this summer, their subsequent additions combined with their existing talent made for a curious collection of players.

Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lance Stephenson are three more Lakers who can realistically play up to three positions.

JaVale McGee is an athletic freak who is talented enough to be a starting center in the league, but still would give plenty of coaches pause with his infamous mental mistakes. Josh Hart had a solid rookie season for L.A. and followed it up with a great summer league, but he’s a wing player on a team loaded on the wings. So how much do those two get on the court?

Then there’s the point guard situation.

One year ago, the Lakers took Lonzo Ball with the No. 2 pick in the draft and made it clear that he was meant to be the face of the franchise’s future. Even when Lonzo struggled shooting the ball, when he was benched for the entire fourth quarter of some games, and when injuries limited him to just 52 games last season, Lonzo remained L.A.’s starting point guard.

It was reported even before LeBron joined the Lakers that he wanted to get away from playing de facto point guard so much, therefore his arrival didn’t necessarily mean Lonzo’s days as L.A.’s point guard were over.

But the Lakers’ signing Rajon Rondo made things complicated.

A four-time All-Star who has led the league in assists three times, the 32-year-old Rondo is still one of the best point guards in the league. Last season with the New Orleans Pelicans he was mostly quiet, but then broke out during the playoffs, averaging 10.3 points and 12.2 assists per game and helping the Pelicans upset the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round before falling to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.

Rondo reminded the basketball world that he’s still a game-changer and still has a lot left in the tank.

When Rondo agreed to join the Lakers on a one-year contract worth $9 million, it gave L.A. three of the best passers on the planet: Lonzo, Rondo and LeBron. The latter two are actually two of the greatest passers the sport has ever seen.

So assuming LeBron sticks to his plan, who is going to be the Lakers’ starting point guard?

Here’s how Rondo and Lonzo stack up.

 

Offense

Prolific scoring is not part of the scouting report for Rondo or Ball. The book on Lonzo is that he’s a willing shooter who too often misses the mark. The book on Rondo is that he avoids shooting whenever possible because he’s made peace with his weaknesses.

Ball scored 10.2 points per game as a rookie, connecting on 36.0 percent of his field goals, 30.5 percent of his three-pointers, and 45.1 percent of his free throws. While normally the free throw shooting would be most alarming, Ball only attempted 1.4 free throws per game. Whereas his 5.7 three-point attempts represented more than half of his shot output, so his lackluster long-range shooting was a running story line throughout the season.

Everybody had theories on what Ball should do to fix his shooting issues. Some said it was his form, some said it was a lack of confidence, some said it was simply a slump that would fix itself in due time. He’s only 20 years old and going into his second NBA season, so it’s not like he’s settled into being whatever he’s going to be as a pro.

Rondo, on the other hand, is what he is at this stage in his career. He’s 32 years old, entering his 13th season in the league. He’s a career 46.3-percent field goal shooter, 30.9 percent beyond the arc, and 60.4 percent at the line. He rarely shoots threes (1.2 attempts per game) and is sometimes cautious to a fault when it comes to pulling the trigger as a shooter.

The strength of these two point guards is their passing and ability to run an offense.

Ball is a brilliant passer. In his one season at UCLA, he led all NCAA Division-1 players with 7.6 assists per game. Last season, he finished second among NBA rookies with 7.2 assists. He had two triple-doubles, and nine double-doubles with points and assists. There’s a reason Lakers president Magic Johnson is so enamored with Lonzo; he really does have that proverbial third eye when it comes to playmaking.

Rondo has that same vision, but his is just a bit better. Chalk it up to experience having been in the NBA much longer, but Rondo is a mastermind at not only making great passes, but also manipulating defenses and orchestrating offenses to get his teammates in the spots he wants to make those passes. Rondo had two triple-doubles and 17 double-doubles (points and assists) last season. He also had two games of 20-plus assists.

If Ball is a passing prodigy, Rondo is an established genius.

Advantage: Rondo

 

Defense

By all statistical measures, Ball is a better defender than Rondo.

Last season, Ball averaged 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, compared to 1.1 steals and 0.2 blocks for Rondo. For his career, Rondo averages 1.7 steals and led the league once with 2.3 steals per game, but in recent years he has not been as prolific in his thievery.

Ball posted 2.5 Defensive Win Shares and a Defensive Box Plus-Minus of 2.5 last season, while Rondo recorded 1.7 and -0.7 in those advanced categories.

Rondo is known for his long arms, but he stands just 6’1″ and is mostly limited to defending other point guards. Ball, at 6’6″ and with room to get stronger, can potentially defend up to three positions.

The Lakers are going to be built around LeBron, and the idea of building a team around a specific player is to play to his strengths and hide his weaknesses.

Given that LeBron will turn 34 years old this season and is going into his 16th pro season, his defense can only be expected to continue to decline. That means L.A. needs to put defenders around him, ideally the kind of long, energetic defenders who can keep up with high-powered offenses like the Warriors and Rockets. Ball fits that profile.

Advantage: Ball

 

Intangibles

There is already a traveling circus element to these Lakers, and Rondo and Ball each have a hand in that perception.

Rondo has a history of clashing with teammates and coaches, dating back to his time with the Boston Celtics — you can read all about it in Ray Allen’s book From The Outside. It’s no coincidence that he’s now on his fifth team in the five years since Boston first traded him.

Lonzo Ball is by all accounts a great teammate who doesn’t rock the boat … but of course he arrives at the boat with LaVar Ball, his controversial father. One player’s carnival-barker relative should not really be a problem for a professional sports team, but such is the media climate in 2018, where LaVar is a topic the Lakers constantly have to address.

Durability is a concern with both Rondo and Lonzo.

Rondo has missed significant time in recent years with a variety of injuries, while Ball missed 30 games of his rookie season with a knee injury, then had minor surgery on his knee this summer. It’s too early to call Ball injury-prone, however.

The obvious edge in experience goes to Rondo. He has more than a decade under his belt in the league. He’s won a championship and played in over 100 playoff games. He’s played with everyone from Kevin Garnett to Dirk Nowitzki to Anthony Davis. Lonzo plays with a veteran savvy uncommon for someone his age, but he’s really just getting started and there’s a lot he hasn’t seen that he can only learn with time.

Another thing to consider is the contract situation.

Rondo is in L.A. on a one-year deal. It feels like an experiment, given that he hasn’t been with any of his last four teams for more than one season — not to mention this entire Lakers’ season is taking on a trial-and-error vibe. Ball, meanwhile, is still on his rookie contract and could potentially be with the Lakers until 2022 before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. With the Lakers having made a bigger investment in Lonzo, it would make sense to give him the keys to get his chemistry with LeBron, Ingram and Kuzma flowing sooner than later, because that’s the team’s core for the next few years.

Advantage: Ball

 

Final verdict: Lonzo Ball

For a team that is trying to win right now, Rajon Rondo would seem like the better option at point guard. He’s a championship-experienced veteran who runs an offense better than anyone in the NBA and gets the ball where it needs to be. He also steps his game up in the playoffs to another level.

Lonzo Ball seems like the better option for a rebuilding or rising contender situation, with his age and inexperience and the fact that he’s still working out the kinks in something as basic as his jump shot.

But for these Lakers, the right call is to start Ball, while making sure to give Rondo enough minutes to keep him engaged and motivated.

With LeBron on the team along with scorers like Ingram, Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Beasley, there shouldn’t be much pressure on Lonzo to score. He can focus on doing what he does best, and if the jumper starts to fall, that’s a bonus.

Rondo, a veteran who is aware of his place, hopefully won’t be too salty about coming off the bench. So far he’s saying all the right things, but you never know how a career-long starter will react when he’s actually not in that role anymore. Assuming he’s of the belief that finishing is more important than starting, the Lakers would be smart to have Rondo on the floor in high-pressure, crunch-time situations later in the game — particularly in the postseason.

Rondo may very well be the better overall player right now, but Lonzo is the better option for L.A. as its starter.

 

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A philosopher’s guide to championships: How The Office, Curt Schilling and a track meet determine Kevin Durant’s legacy

Durant

The Lead in

When I was a freshman in college I played soccer for the Suffolk University men’s team. I was a goalkeeper, and somehow found my way into the starting lineup halfway through the season.

We were picked to finish 7th in our conference. Next thing I know, we’re playing for the conference title against one of the best D3 teams in the country. In my home state. 15 minutes from my hometown. In front of a 2,000 people. Friends. Family.

We won the title and I felt elated. I had won sports championships before, but this was different. I had beat the best competition that I had personally ever faced. I had never felt more like a champion.

So how does Kevin Durant fit into all of this? Stick with me, you’ll find out.

 

Two elite shooters, a podcast, and a twitter beef walk into a bar

Have you heard this one before? During an appearance on C.J. McCollum’s podcast, Kevin Durant and his host discussed the former MVP’s move to Golden State. In short, McCollum lightheartedly expressed his disdain for the move, and even more so the addition of DeMarcus Cousins.

KD fired back by saying that Portland doesn’t have a shot at the title anyways, inferring that even if the Trail Blazers landed Cousins in free agency, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Then this ensued.

Quick summary: C.J. McCollum called KD “soft” for joining a team who had A) just had the best regular season of all time and B) came back from a 1-3 deficit to beat Durant and his Thunder during the postseason. KD has historically taken offense to these barbs.

Is this the first time NBA players have expressed their feelings towards KD’s infamous free agency choice? No. I am positive players have talked privately about how Durant has made the league less competitive, or lowered a players’ chance of getting to the finals.

Nonetheless, Durant is a Finals MVP and two time world champion of the best professional basketball league in the world. Naturally, it is time for a specific question to unfold itself once again…

Are Kevin Durant’s titles worth less than other championships?

 

Principle 1 – the 100 yard dash

Imagine you are in high school again. You compete in the 100 yard sprint and have qualified for your State Finals. There you are, on the track and waiting for the gun to go off. You can win this thing.

And you do! Congratulations, you are the fastest sprinter in your state, a true champion of your event!

Now, imagine during that same summer, you are watching the Olympics. Usain Bolt is lining up to run the 100 yard dash. The gun goes off and he sprints. As majestic as he is powerful, Bolt wins the race and earns the title of fastest man in the world.

He is literally the best person in the world at running 100 yards.

Here we have it. Two champions. One champion won their State title race. The other won a World title race.

Imagine one more thing for me. You are at a restaurant. You tell a guy sitting next to you that you won your State title for the 100 yard dash. You look up and see Usain Bolt on TV, getting his gold medal for winning his respective 100 yard dash. You ask the guy sitting next to you: Who is the real 100 yard champion? Me, or Usain Bolt?

His response: Usain Bolt, of course. Now shut up and let me eat my chicken piccata.

What do we have? Two champions, but one champion. What? Let me rephrase it. Two champions of the same sport, but only one of them can call themselves the world’s best sprinter.

What’s my point? It’s simple.

Championships are weighted according to the talent in the tournament.

 

Principle 2 – Trivia night with The Office

Remember that episode on The Office where the gang goes out and crashes Oscar’s trivia night? For those who aren’t addicted to the show, here’s what happens.

The boss, Andy, is a thousand bucks or so short of hitting a company goal for the quarter. He decided to go to Oscar’s trivia night contest and see if he can win the money there. The whole office divides into teams, as to increase their odds of winning. There is a smart team, a backup smart team, and a team of dummies who simply want to drink and have fun. Long story short, the dummies end up winning trivia night!

So what the hell does this have to do with Kevin Durant, the Warriors, and winning NBA championships? I am glad you asked.

Oscar’s trivia league was socially reserved for the best and brightest. The league is a serious one, and at least a working knowledge of transcendentalist painters, French film noir, and the classic fideism versus hypercriticism debate, are all a must-have. In essence, the talent level in this league is elite.

Yet, the dummies were eligible to play. And they won. Now, pretend they were in a fictional, TV character trivia league. Our dummies from The Office play against Peter Griffin and his gang, Homer Simpson and his family, Will Smith and his Fresh Prince crew, and lastly, Walter White and the rest of the Breaking Bad cast.

But at the last second, right before trivia night starts, genius Walter White, child prodigy Lisa Simpson, and nerd Carlton Banks decide to join the dummies from The Office. Woah. That team just became stacked. The talent level in the trivia league didn’t change but, the talent dispersal did.

Before this change, there was no clear favorite to win the trivia night championship. Now, however, there is a sure favorite – the loaded Fresh Prince team. The league is still as talented as ever, but on the whole the teams are worse. Hmmm.

Back to Kevin Durant.

The year before KD went to Golden State, his Thunder met the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. They were up 3-1 in that series. They had the Warriors on the ropes during game 6 in Oklahoma, tied 101-101 with 2:00 minutes remaining. What happened? Klay Thompson had an historic shooting performance, going 11-18 from deep for the game while hitting 7 threes in the second half and 5 of them in the 4th quarter. It was a new postseason record for threes in a game.

In order to beat the Thunder, Klay Thompson had to literally rewrite the history books.

Fast forward a year. Durant is now on the Warriors. In fact, the Warriors start 4 All-stars, 3 total MVP awards, and by 2018 what will become 16 total All-NBA selections. They possess 2 of the top 3 shooters of all time, and one of the top 5 pure scorers of all time. In addition, the have a 6’5″ forward with a legitimate shot as going down as the best defender ever. Oh, and their bench is stacked, including a coach who played with Jordan, and 2x MVP Steve Nash doing consulting work for them.

Without question, the Warriors from 2016-now are the most talented team to ever exist. And I didn’t even mention Boogie…

Yet, the NBA has more talent within its league than ever. So, if Durant wins a title today, doesn’t it abide by principle 1 and actually help Durant’s legacy?

Nope.

Let’s check back in and see how our TV character trivia night is going. The intellectually dominant Fresh Prince crew is winning by a ton. In fact, it looks like they just won the tite. Wow. Congrats. Yet, they do not look ecstatic. Happy, but not the sense of blissful, everything-is-perfect, pure joy that comes usually comes with winning a ‘ship. The losers aren’t too down either. In fact, they’re more mad, if anything. Not mad that they lost, but mad that they never had a chance. Mad that there was no competition.

Despite a league with high-end talent, Walter White, Lisa Simpson, Carlton Banks and co. didn’t beat the best. They were the best. How can the best beat the best when they are the best? Confusing, but not not so confusing, if you know what I mean.

Okay Espo, what’s the principle here?

There is a difference between the talent you compete against, and the talent in the league.  If the best talent in the league is on your team, then who are you truly competing against? This principle sounds very close to principle 1, but they are as important as they are different.

Championships are weighted according to the talent you directly compete against.

 

Principle 3 – Curt Schilling and the ’04 Sox

Before he became an extreme right TV personality, Curt Schilling was a member of the drought-ending 2004 Boston Red Sox. He coined the team’s phrase, “Why not us.” Now allow me to explain why their series win over the Yankees (not even a title-winning series, but the ALCS) is the one of the greatest moments in sports history.

The season before, the Red Sox had a chance of going to the World Series and therefore ending a title drought that spanned over 8 decades. Yet, Aaron Boone decided to hit a series winning walk off homerun against Tim Wakefield (who I met in Martha’s Vineyard, really nice dude.) The next year, the Yankees stole A-Rod away from the Sox and went into the season with 8 potential Hall of Fame players. Yikes.

To make matters worse, Pedro Martinez famously called the Yankees his “daddy.” Oh no.

Flash forward to game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. It is the bottom of the 9th inning in Fenway Park. The whole ballpark knows Dave Roberts is going to try and steal second base against Jorge Posada. He does it anyways and is safe. Bill Mueller knocks in Roberts to tie the game. David Ortiz hits a walk off homer in extra innings and the greatest comeback in the history of sports began.

The Red Sox go onto win this series, and the World Series, and a bunch of idiots becomes one of the most beloved teams in sports while ending an 86 year title drought. Nuff said.

Alright Mr. Durant, what is the lesson here?

Timing matters. History matters. Context matters.

Indulge me by reading another hypothetical situation. Pretend you are LeBron James and you have to remove two of your three titles from history. Totally obliviated. No one remembers them, they only remember the one of your choosing. Which one do you pick?

Does LeBron go with title number one? Maybe. He beat an OKC team that was still too young to really win it all. But, it is his first title. I still say no, though. What about title number two? With the help of Ray Allen (UConn shoutout) LeBron beats a two-decade old Spurs dynasty and one of the best coaches to ever do it? Maybe, but I am not sold.

The obvious choice is that LeBron would keep the 2016 trophy. The title he won by being the first ever team to come back from a 1-3 deficit and win it all. The first title in Cleveland in over 50 years. Beating a team which had just won an NBA record 73 games and possessed a 2x MVP who was also the first unanimous MVP in NBA history, a team which had beat them the year before.

Yeah, he’s picking that one.

But LeBron isn’t just picking this title because it has sentimental value to him and his home state. He’s picking it because it was the toughest feat he has ever accomplished. This was his Mt. Everest. His Ivan Drago.

In others words, the 2016 title is worth more because it has more value.

Woah. Reread that. I’ll give you a second…

…Okay, are you back? Good to go?

Titles can change in value, although that does not mean LeBron now has 3.5 titles. Numeric value doesn’t change, but legacy-value changes. LeBron truthers can always say: Did Jordan ever come back 1-3 to beat a 73 win team with an MVP and bring the first title to his home state in 52 years?

That means something, right? Context matters. What is KD’s context?

In the most factual and objective way possible, Durant left a team that just blew a 3-1 lead in the WCF. Furthermore, he left a team loaded with talent, including a future MVP. He left his team to go to what may already be the most dominant dynasty in all of 21st Century American sport. He left his team to go to a team who were already title favorite the past two seasons and will be for the foreseeable future.

I’ll be even more blunt.

Kevin Durant joined an uber-talented, title winning team who many were fans were already starting to hate.

The rule here, Espo?

Championships are weighted by cultural habitat during the time of the title

 

So, how do I really feel?

We now know that while a championship never has a numerical value of more than one, it can still have a legacy-value of more than one. Paul Pierce only has one ring. Yet, he will be remembered as a better Celtic than Kevin McHale, who has three rings and beat their rival Lakers! Don’t be fooled, either. It is strictly Pierce’s ring which allows him to be in the top three greatest Celtics discussion.

What’s more impressive? Completing the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history to bring a title to your birth state, or joining an historically talented, record breaking team and beating Cleveland in the finals?

If you like to observe truth, then clearly LeBron’s title is more impressive. Oh, and what does impressive mean? Quite literally, it means “to evoke admiration.” And if we admire one title more than the other, shouldn’t it reflect in a player’s all-time legacy?

So here it all is. The three principles for establishing legacy through championships.

#1. Championships are weighted according to the talent in the tournament.

#2. Championships are weighted according to the talent you directly compete against.

#3. Championships are weighted by cultural habitat during the time of the title.

As of right now, people are torn about how to weight KD’s titles towards his legacy? Should we hate KD? Should we ease up a bit? My twitter poll doesn’t know what to do either.

https://twitter.com/MattEsposito_/status/1022303145572163584

But now you know the rules. Go and make your own judgement.

 

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5 players who can bring ‘Showtime’ back to the Los Angeles Lakers

Kawhi Leonard Lakers

One would need unhealthy doses of both Magic Johnson’s beaming confidence and LaVar Ball’s unflappable optimism to claim with a straight face that the Los Angeles Lakers got everything they wanted this offseason.

Of course, LeBron James was the biggest piece of the Lakers’ plan for the immediate future, and the franchise was quick to get him under contract soon after free agency opened.

But it was no industry secret that the Lakers’ summer goals involved teaming LeBron with at least one more All-Star, be it Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, or Kawhi Leonard or Damian Lillard in a trade. Some dream scenarios had the Lakers bringing in two stars to flank LeBron and creating an instant contender.

So far, however, the Lakers have failed to land any of those big-name targets. George decided to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Cousins joined the Golden State Warriors. Leonard was traded to the Toronto Raptors, and the Lillard trade talks didn’t materialize into a deal.

Barring a surprise move, the Lakers will begin the 2018-19 season similar to how the Cleveland Cavaliers ended the 2017-18 season — with a roster that features LeBron leading a collection of youngsters and veteran role players.

No one outside of the Lakers’ front office knows exactly what the plan is moving forward, but the end-goal is obviously to contend for NBA titles. Which means competing with the Warriors. Which means having the offensive firepower to keep up with the Warriors. This means the Lakers may have to reach back into the archives and create a team that is reminiscent of their “Showtime” glory days from the 1980s.

And who better to build that team than Magic Johnson?

Whether it’s at the 2019 trade deadline or next summer’s free-agency period, there are some available players that can truly bring the “Showtime” element back to L.A.

 

5. Ricky Rubio

Word on the street is that LeBron wants to move away from playing de facto point guard, and it looks like the Lakers are trying to facilitate that by employing true playmakers like Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo.

As brilliant as he is at orchestrating an offense, it’s not a coincidence that Rondo has played on five teams in the past four seasons. He’s clashed with enough coaches and teammates that it seems no one is willing to commit more than one season to him despite his talent and his knack for stepping his game up in the playoffs.

If things go according to trend, Rondo won’t be with the Lakers after next season.

At the same time, Rubio will be a free agent after next season. And as I’ve written before, Lonzo Ball would be in pretty good shape if he were to put together a career using the Rubio and Rondo blueprint. (Jason Kidd would be the ceiling in that scenario.) So if the Lakers lose Rondo, bringing in Rubio would be the next best fit for that style of point guard.

Rubio is an incredible passer (7.9 assists per game in his career), a defensive playmaker (2.0 steals per game) and a good rebounder for his position (seven games last season of 10-plus rebounds). He and Ball, like Rondo and Ball, have similar skill sets, all the way down to their suspect jump shots.

Rubio currently has a nice gig in Utah as the starting point guard on a playoff team. But if he wants to be on a championship contender sooner than later, he might be willing to accept a lesser role in L.A.

4. DeAndre Jordan

During his last season in Cleveland, LeBron reportedly wanted the Cavaliers to make a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers for Jordan. It wasn’t difficult to see why.

Jordan is one of the more explosive athletes at his position in the league. He’s a three-time All-NBA pick, one-time All-Star, two-time All-Defensive pick and a two-time league leader in rebounds.

His offensive game doesn’t go far beyond catching lobs, getting putbacks and dunking the ball, but at least he knows what he can and can’t do and stays within his limitations. Jordan has led the league in field goal percentage five times — last season was the first time he hadn’t been No. 1 in that category since 2012 — and he is the NBA’s career leader (67.3 percent) in field goal shooting.

Surrounded by great passers like LeBron and Lonzo (and Rubio?), Jordan would thrive like he did when he played with Chris Paul in L.A.

Jordan left the Clippers this summer to sign a one-year deal with the Dallas Mavericks. He’ll be a free agent next summer. After coming up short in the playoffs so often in L.A., and being on a likely lottery team next season in Dallas, he may be another player interested in winning a title with the new-look Lakers.

3. Klay Thompson

One player who certainly has his share of championship rings but may have other priorities next summer that work in the Lakers’ favor is Klay Thompson.

The four-time All-Star shooting guard has won three NBA titles with the Warriors, and will be favored to add a fourth ring in 2019. After that, he’ll become a free agent.

Because he has previously been the No. 2 and now the No. 3 option with the Warriors, and perhaps because he’s been labeled by many as a shooting specialist rather than an all-around star, Thompson hasn’t been making superstar-level money. He’s not broke by any stretch — his salary is $18.9 million next season — but he hasn’t yet cracked that $20 million mark that often represents real superstardom in the league.

Klay is also an L.A. native whose father, Mychal Thompson, won championships with the Lakers in the 1980s. There may be a part of Klay that wants to wear the purple and gold for the hometown squad.

Klay won’t rise beyond being the No. 2 option in L.A. as long as LeBron is around, but he could get out of the No. 3 spot he’s currently in behind Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, if that means anything to him. Like De Andre Jordan, Thompson would benefit a lot from having passers like LeBron and Lonzo getting him the ball, and he could continue winning championships.

2. Jimmy Butler

While his game isn’t flashy like the style that the name “Showtime” brings to mind, Butler is simply a great all-around player who excels on both ends of the court that would make the Lakers a real title contender if he joined the team.

The 6-foot-7 wing achieved the NBA triumvirate of individual honors last season: He was named to the All-NBA, All-Star and All-Defensive teams for the Minnesota Timberwolves. But there have been reports that Butler isn’t happy in his current location, talk that only gained traction after he recently turned down a $100 million contract extension offer.

Butler has a player option that allows him to become a free agent in 2019. If he chooses that route, the Lakers should be among the teams pursuing him. Butler was a tough rival for LeBron when they were both in the Eastern Conference, so the two know each other’s games well.

Viewed as more grit than glamour on the court, Butler is nonetheless a versatile weapon (22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.0 steals per game last season) who is one of the game’s elite talents.

1. Kawhi Leonard

After LeBron, the Lakers’ top target this summer was Leonard. Of course, the hard part would be prying the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 NBA Finals MVP away from the San Antonio Spurs via trade, when it was widely reported that the Spurs really preferred not to deal with the Lakers.

Still, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Leonard would be headed to L.A. Not only had he burned his bridges in San Antonio and made it clear he didn’t want to be there anymore, but he’d also reportedly made it clear that he planned to sign with the Lakers as a free agent in 2019. That took away the incentive for a lot of teams to pursue a trade, if Leonard would be a one-year rental at best.

The Lakers still failed to get their man. The Spurs traded Leonard to the Toronto Raptors.

But that may turn out to be a good thing for the Lakers. In order to get Leonard this summer, L.A. would’ve had to trade some valuable pieces from their young core. To get Leonard next summer, L.A. just needs some room under the salary cap, which they should have.

Injuries (and a rumored disinterest in playing when he was healthy) caused Leonard to miss all but nine games last season. But when he’s at the top of his game, Leonard is one of the best players in the league. He finished in the top-3 of MVP voting in 2016 and 2017. In his last full season, he averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game.

Like Butler, Leonard is not a flashy player. He’s just highly skilled, productive and tough. Which is what “Showtime” is really all about in the first place: Winning games and hanging banners. Leonard can help the Lakers get back to where they used to be.

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Top 25 Players in the NBA

Top 25 Players in the NBA

Before we get into the “Top 25 Players in the NBA,” I need to preface by saying this is if everyone is healthy in the league. For example, I did not lower Kawhi Leonard’s rank because he barely played last season. So, here it is, my “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”

 

#25: Ben Simmons

I have already prepared myself for the reactions to the 25th ranked player in my “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings. People are going to say that Simmons is already a top-20, or even top-15 player in the NBA. However, why? I am not saying that Simmons is not going to be a top-10 player in the league one day, but I do not understand how people already have him ranked so high.

Simmons had a very good rookie year in the NBA. Averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game, Simmons ran away with the Rookie of the Year. What makes Simmons’ stats even more impressive is the fact that he did not make a single three last season. With the way the modern NBA is trending, having a non-shooting ball-handler is uncommon.

While Simmons did not make any threes last season, that did not slow him down. Take a look at the GIF below.

Ben Simmons Drive

It never seemed to matter how far off Simmons’ defender played him last season. Simmons would always find a way to get to the basket and finish at a high clip. Converting on 69.8% of his shots at the rim, Simmons was well-above the 63.1% league average. Just because Simmons is currently ranked 25th in my rankings, it will not be long before he slides into the top-15, and the top-10 in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”

 

#24: LaMarcus Aldridge

NBA fans often forget how dominant LaMarcus Aldridge really is. Remember his days in Portland? The dude was a walking double-double. Then, he gets out of the spotlight in San Antonio and people forget about him. Aldridge is still one of the most dominating big men in the NBA.

Averaging 23.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game last season, it is time to acknowledge how talented Aldridge is. LMA led a Kawhi-less Spurs team to the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference. Yes, Gregg Popovich is a mastermind, but teams do not make the playoffs in the West without talent on the court.

Aldridge’s 29.1% usage rating last season was the highest it has been in his career with San Antonio. Aldridge made it work too. Developing his game to continue to fit the modern NBA, Aldridge posted the highest offensive rating of his career. Fans often forget about how good Aldridge is, it is time to continue to acknowledge that fact.

 

#23: Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic is one of my favorite players to watch in the entire NBA. His skill set for a center is wildly unheard of, but wildly productive. I mean, come on, how many NBA centers can make this pass?

Nikola Jokic Pass

Jokic’s basketball IQ and passing ability alone make him one of the top centers in the NBA. However, there is so much more to his game. With averages of 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game, Jokic brings it all to the table.

Perhaps the biggest improvement in his game last season was his three-point shooting. The Joker attempted a total of 280 threes last season, connecting on 39.6% of the attempts. Jokic has made it a point of emphasis to continue to adjust his game to stay up-to-date with the modern NBA.

Last season, 27.7% of Jokic’s attempted field goals were from three-point territory. The season before, just 16.3% of his shots were from three. This is a good sign for the Nuggets and their big man. Jokic has been able to adapt and stay productive while the league changes. This is why Jokic is in my top-25 and why Denver just inked him to a max contract.

 

#22: DeMar DeRozan

Another season has gone by and another season has ended for DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors at the hands of “The King.” After going into the playoffs as the top seed in the East, the Raptors did not even manage to win one game against Cleveland in the second round. However, this does not alter DeRozan’s playing ability.

Last season marked the fifth straight year that DeRozan posted at least 20 points per game. Recording 23 points, 5.2 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game, DeRozan solidified himself as one of the game’s top two guards. Having his usage rate drop from 34.3% in the 2016-17 season to 29.6% in the 2017-18 season, DeRozan remained effective attempting the most threes in his career, and connecting at the second-highest clip on those shots in his career.

In addition, DeRozan posted a 9.6 win share stat, making him one of the most valuable players in win shares in the league. Most of the stats speak for themself. DeRozan gets to his spots on offense, and he takes advantage of his matchup. There was little debate in my mind when deciding if DeRozan belonged in the “Top-25 Players in the NBA” list.

 

#21: Rudy Gobert

Mark Rudy Gobert down as one of the most underrated players in the NBA. Gobert is not a flashy player by any means, which is why he is seldomly mentioned in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” conversation. Just because Gobert is not a three-point shooting five does not mean he is not one of the best centers in the league.

Gobert does most of his damage on the defensive side of the ball. Averaging 2.3 blocks per game last season, Gobert solidified himself as one of the best paint-protectors in the league. However, there is more to his game than his defense. Gobert recorded 13.5 points per game last season while shooting 62.2% from the field, a career-high. Yes, most of these points came on dunks or lobs from the “Spanish Unicorn,” but that is where Gobert does his damage.

It is mind boggling why Gobert is not talked about more often. His stellar 122 offensive rating and 99 defensive rating should put him in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” with few questions asked.

 

#20: Victor Oladipo

Who would have thought that one year ago at this time that we would have Victor Oladipo in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA”? What a year it was for Oladipo with the Indiana Pacers. Oladipo silenced all his haters averaging 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. Vic led the Pacers, who were a projected lottery team, to the fifth seed in the East and took LBJ and the Cavs to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.

I had trouble finding a spot for Oladipo in the rankings because of how unexpected last season was. But, when you look at all the numbers as a whole, he definitely deserves to be in the top-20. In addition to his gaudy offensive numbers, Oladipo averaged 2.4 steals per game, ranking him first in the NBA last season. The winner of the Most Improved Player is bound for another successful 2018-19 season. His determination to win was on full display right after the game seven loss to the Cavs. The first thing he did after the game was text his trainer asking him when the work started up again.

Victor Oladipo Trainer

#19: Paul George

Well, Thunder fans, PG13 is there to stay. Congratulations. One year after you traded for a “rental,” the team has convinced a top-20 player in the NBA to stay in Oklahoma City. Now, Thunder fans may be wondering why George ranks lower than others have him in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings. Averaging 21.9 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game, PG13 had an interesting season adjusting to the OK3.

In my opinion, George hasn’t been the same since his gruesome injury with Team USA. He has not been as explosive and does not show the same burst he showed in those playoff battles against LeBron and the Heat. This was to be expected based on the injury, but that is the biggest reason he is 19th in the rankings. In addition, George has never been a great clutch player, often underperforming in crucial situations.

This season, George shot 42.2% from the field in the fourth quarter. In addition, he shot 38.3% from three in the fourth quarter. Now, do not get me wrong, 38% from three is not a bad number, but it is lower than his 40.1% from three throughout the season. Finally, who can forget game six of the playoffs last season against the Utah Jazz. In an elimination game, George juiced just five points. Paul George is a great player, I am not trying to say he is not, but for me 19 is where PG13 belonged on the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” list.

 

#18: Karl-Anthony Towns

The Big KAT had a terrific third season in the NBA, and now he is going to get paid. Karl-Anthony Towns is reportedly in negotiations with the Minnesota Timberwolves on a five-year, max contract. Towns made his first all-star appearance last season and he is not looking back.

Documenting 21.3 points per game and 12.3 rebounds per game, Towns was one of the most versatile offensive bigs in the NBA. Notice how I said offensive, because his defense is a whole different discussion. Towns shot 42.1% from three-point range last season, the highest percentage of any Wolves player. Ranking 14th in the NBA in percentage from downtown, Towns has adjusted his game with the modern NBA.

Helping lead the Wolves to their first playoff series in over a decade, Towns had a disappointing playoff series. Averaging just 15.4 points per game and shooting under 50% from the field and under 30% from three, Towns had a less than pleasing first playoff series of his career. However, in games three, four, and five of the series against the Rockets, Towns was back to averaging 21 points a night. He struggled mightily in the first two games, but seemed to overcome his struggles and put it past him.

As one of the most versatile bigs in the NBA, Towns already ranks in the top-20. But, it will not be long before he is in the conversation for the top-10 in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”

 

#17: Klay Thompson

Mark me down as a firm Klay Thompson believer. What he does every night for the Golden State Warriors is invaluable. Thompson is one of, if not the best, shooter in the NBA. Averaging 20 points per game last season on 44% shooting from three-point range, Klay solidified himself as the best third option in the NBA. Imagine what Klay could be doing as the first option on a team? He is a free agent in 2019, could we see him as a first option?

Getting past his future with the Warriors, when we look at Klay Thompson’s game, it is nothing but good things. We all know about his stellar shooting and his ability to knock down shots from anywhere on the court, but what some people do not know about is his defensive ability. Watch below as Klay Thompson absolutely locks down Paul George as the shot clock expires. Not many people can hang with a top-level offensive player like PG13, but Klay Thompson can.

Klay Thompson Defense

#16: Joel Embiid

Trust the Process. Well, the process is working. It will not be long before Joel Embiid is a top-10 player in the NBA. Playing in 63 games last season, the Kansas big man averaged 22.9 points and 11 rebounds per game. Embiid did work in every facet of the game shooting over 48% from the field and recording 1.8 blocks per game. However, there is still work to do if Embiid wants to be a top-10 or top-5 player in the NBA.

The first thing is development from three. In his “rookie” season in the NBA, Embiid shot 36.7% from three, a very respectable percentage for a big man. However, last season, that percentage dropped to 30.8%. There is potential for Embiid to have his downtown shooting percentage climb, and he will need it to climb to take the next step.

In addition, speaking in general terms, Joel Embiid has the mindset and attitude of a top-level NBA player. Embiid cares about one thing and one thing only: winning. Whether you like it or not, Embiid’s trash talking on the court helps him gain an edge and it causes problems for opponents. Joel Embiid is on his way. Even though I do not have him ranked as my top center, it should not be long before “The Process” claims that spot in “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”

#15: DeMarcus Cousins

I already know it is coming. People are going to think I am crazy for putting Cousins ahead of Embiid. Since these rankings are not taking injuries into the picture, Cousins still ranks as my top center. People forget of how dominant Cousins is. Players feed the ball down low and Boogie gets a bucket, it is usually as simple as that.

Cousins was having a career-year before going down with injury last season. Posting 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game, Cousins looked primed to appear in his first playoff series. Unfortunately, the NBA Gods had different ideas. But, the injury does not take away from the player Cousins is. DeMarcus Cousins is, plain and simple, dominant. His footwork on the low-post and his continued development from three make him the most effective center in the NBA and 15th in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings.

 

#14: Draymond Green

There are fans of the NBA who cannot stand Draymond Green, and I am in the same boat. However, I respect him as a player and the energy that he brings to the game. It hurt me to put him 14th in these rankings, but it was what he deserved. Green affects the game in so many ways that the Warriors would not be the same without him. He does it on offense, defense, leadership, and of course, in trash talking.

There is not a player in the NBA that I can think of who plays with more energy than Draymond Green. Green is pure heart and effort every time the ball goes up in the air. Yes, his passion for the game can get him in trouble from time to time, but his passion is usually used positively. Green averaged 11 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game last season. However, it is what does not show up in the box score that makes Green a difference maker. Green’s 105 defensive rating and 6.1 defensive win shares make him one of the top defenders in the NBA.

Another part of Green’s game that makes him so good is his ability to play the five. The Warriors made the small-ball lineup a thing, using Green at the five. This death lineup is what makes the Warriors so good. Teams can try to put Green in a pick-and-roll when he is at the five, but Green has the ability to switch onto guards and shut them down. It is unfair at times and part of the reason he ranks 14th in my “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”

 

#13: Damian Lillard

“Dame Dollar.” “Big Game Dame.” Whatever you want to call him, Damian Lillard is a special talent. While he has never found much success in the postseason, Lillard is one of the best guards in the NBA. His shiftiness and sudden explosion make him a must-watch. Filling it up with 26.9 points and 6.6 assists per game last season, Lillard had arguably his best season in his career.

Lillard made 227 threes last season, just two less than his career-high, which he posted in 2015-16. Dame kept defenders guessing last season. If the defense came up and pressed Lillard, he would explode past them and finish at the rim. If the defense laid off, Lillard would pull up from Mars and drain a long three in your face. Don’t believe me? Check out his game-winner against the Lakers below and think again. There’s no reason that Lillard should not be in the top-15 of any “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings.

Damian Lillard Three

#12: John Wall

Why is everyone starting to hate on John Wall? He gets hurt for one season and everyone is starting to act like he is falling off. No way. Not a chance. John Wall is still one of the most dominant and explosive points guards in the association. Even after injury last season, Wall managed to post 19.4 points and 9.6 assists per game. No, he was not his normal self, but that is expected coming off an injury that sidelined him for more than a month.

No matter what anyone says, there shall be no John Wall slander. Wall is one of the toughest covers in the entire league, and when he brings out the gang signs, it is over. The speedster has never been a great three-point shooter or defender, and he might never be. However, the way he attacks the rim and creates for his teammates, Wall deserves to be 12th in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”

 

#11: Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Buckets. All kinds of rumors are surrounding Butler and the Timberwolves this summer. There have been recents reports that Butler will not re-sign with the Wolves. There has been reports that he is unhappy with the effort shown by Karl Towns and others. If you need a refresher on the whole situation, I broke it down in an article. Anyways, on to Butler as the player. Butler is the second-best two-way player in the NBA (behind Kawhi.) There are no words to describe his value to the Timberwolves last season. Without him, the Wolves would have been in the lottery and nowhere near a playoff team.

To further prove that point, Butler missed 23 games last season. The Timberwolves were 10-13 without Butler last season. With him, the Wolves were 37-22. Butler was one of just a handful of Timberwolf players that decided to play defense last season. Butler’s defense was so good that the Wolves held opponents to 7.2 points lower in offensive rating when Jimmy was on the floor. Jimmy, along with other veterans like Taj Gibson, was the main reason the Wolves did not allow 150 points per game.

In addition, Jimmy got his buckets. His 22.2 points per game led the Timberwolves. Furthermore, Butler was who the Wolves went to when the team was in dire need of a basket. Butler was the go-to man down the stretch and led the Timberwolves to the playoffs.

 

#10: Chris Paul

What could have been. That will be the question in NBA and Rockets fans head for the months leading up to the 2018-19 season. The Rockets were one game away from defeating the “undefeatable” Golden State Warriors. Then, Chris Paul went down with an injury at the end of game five that kept him out of game six and seven. Paul’s value to the Rockets was much more than scoring, finding teammates, and defending. Paul was a leader on and off the court for Houston.

Multiple times throughout the season, the Rockets looked like they would fall apart during a game; however, they held on. Why? Chris Paul. Paul kept the team together in games that were spiraling out of control. Paul got the team buckets when they needed them most, and he controlled the game like a true floor general. While CP3 posted his second-lowest assist total of his career, the ball was out of his hands a lot. People wondered how he and James Harden would co-exist. And to put it lightly, I think they did just fine.

Chris Paul seems to fit in nicely with whoever he plays next to. He is the true definition of a great leader and a great teammate. The only thing preventing CP3 from being ranked higher than 10 is the other unearthly players sitting higher in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”

Chris Paul
Getty Images

#9: Kyrie Irving

Another great “what if” story from the NBA last season. The Boston Celtics took the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics did so without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. So, Boston fans everywhere are dreaming over what could have been for the team last season if even Irving stayed healthy. In his first season post-LeBron, Irving averaged 24.4 points and 5.1 assists per game. His handles and offensive wizardry continued to dazzle in Beantown.

I have Irving ranked as my third best point guard, behind Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry. However, at just 26-years-old, Irving is bound to soon be the top point guard in the league. It is amazing what Irving is doing at such a young age. If injuries stay out of his way, top-5 is on the way for the former Duke guard in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”

 

#8: Giannis Antetokounmpo

For the longest time, the Greek Freak was on his way. Well, it is official, he has arrived. Now the best player in the East with LeBron gone, Antetokounmpo is just what his nickname says “a freak.” Giannis recorded 26.9 points and 10 rebounds per game last season. Every season that he has been in the NBA, Antetokounmpo has made a jump in PPG from the previous season. If that continues, it will not be long before Giannis is averaging 30 PPG.

In addition to his ridiculous scoring numbers, Giannis is a terrific passer and defender. Averaging 4.8 assists per game last season, Giannis made defenses pay when they doubled him. On defense, he recorded 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. His length and athleticism makes him a top-five two-way player in the NBA. Before you start debating whether Giannis should be ranked as the top player in the Eastern Conference without LeBron, chew on this:

Giannis Antetokounmpo Dunk

#7: Russell Westbrook

For the second season in a row, Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double. I do not care what you think of stat-padding or anything of that nature, averaging a triple-double is impressive. The amount of energy Westbrook puts forth every night is next to none. Westbrook plays with a similar intensity as Draymond Green. Ever since Kevin Durant left the Thunder, it seems like that energy has doubled. Westbrook is out to prove something, and he wants to prove it with a championship.

Ranked as my number two point guard on the list, it is Westbrook’s explosiveness and offensive abilities that get the job done. Averaging 25.4 points per game last season, Russ shot 44.9% from the field. His 5.5 offensive win shares makes you realize just how great Russ is on that side of the ball. If Westbrook could develop a 36-40% three-point shot he would be virtually unstoppable. The only chance teams have of stopping Russ is letting him shoot and hoping he misses. Because once he gets to the rim or on the fastbreak, it is game over.

 

#6: Kawhi Leonard

The summer of LeBron was quickly flooded by the summer of Kawhi. After requesting a trade out of San Antonio, fans have been on the edge of their seats waiting to find out where Leonard will land. Leonard has been on the record saying he wants to be in Los Angeles, but there might not be a deal that makes sense for the Spurs/Clippers/Lakers. Wherever Leonard lands, the team will be getting the top two-way player in the game.

After basically sitting out an entire season, it is easy to forget just how good Kawhi is. He is nicknamed “The Klaw” for a reason. Kawhi absolutely shuts down the opposing team’s best player each and every night. He has made a living on the defensive side of the ball. His defense is what got him into the NBA. Kawhi was never a great offensive player coming into the league, but his defense was enough to get him a spot.

Since he has been in the league, Kawhi has developed his offense. Kawhi is now one of the biggest offensive threats in the NBA. His ability to knock down shots and over power people on the way to the rim make him such a scary matchup. If Kawhi Leonard played last season, and we were able to see his further improvement, he very well could have made the top-5 in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”

 

#5: James Harden

Yes, your eyes are not lying. I have the MVP ranked fifth in my “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings. James Harden is great, that is not a question, but there are just players that do more than Harden. Harden makes his living on the offensive side of the ball, and in particular, at the free-throw line. Harden attempted over 10 free-throws per game last season. His 8.7 points per game that come from the stripe accounted for 28.6% of his total points.

There is no doubt there is a skill in getting to the free-throw line, but sometimes the way Harden gets to the line is hard to watch. His flopping and wild body movements draw the refs into a ton of whistles when there is really no contact. This, along with his sub-par defense, which is recently improved, made Harden land in the five hole in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”

 

#4: Steph Curry

The former two-time MVP and unanimous MVP has a great story. The sharpshooter was labeled as “too small” coming into the draft. People thought that he was just a cinderella story that went to Davidson, and they predicted Curry would fall off the map. Well, Golden State took a chance on Steph, and boy has it paid off. Curry takes the most threes out of anyone in the NBA. Curry attempted 501 threes last season in just 51 games, that is almost 10 threes a game. And, while he attempts those 10 threes a game, he connects on 42.3% of them.

Hats off to Steph Curry. The NBA has arguably changed because of guys like Curry who attempt threes in bunches. Curry has no problem pulling up and shooting from anywhere on the court. He is one of the deadliest offensive players the NBA has ever seen. Widely regarded as one of the best shooters in the history of the NBA, there was little doubt to put Curry in the four spot in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings.

#3: Anthony Davis

When DeMarcus Cousins went down with an injury last season, most thought the Pelicans playoff hopes were over. Anthony Davis had different ideas. Davis averaged 28.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game last season. He continued to develop his game to fit the modern NBA, shooting 34% from three. In addition to the offensive work he put in, Davis showed his worth on defense too. Recording 2.6 blocks per game, Davis made any player think twice before testing him in the paint.

Davis has the potential to be one of the all-time greats. Yes, I said it. At just 25-years-old, Davis is showing how good he can be. If Davis can continue to develop his three-pointer and start winning more playoff games, he will be first on the list before too long.

 

#2: Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant is great. There is no other way to put it. What KD does on a nightly basis is unheard of. The two-time champ is the best pure scorer the game has ever seen. Durant fills it up in so many different ways. He will take you off the dribble and finish at the cup. Durant will explode by you just to stop and pop from mid-range. Or, he will not worry about dribbling at all and just take a 30-foot bomb that he knocks down with ease.

There are so few words as to how one would describe Kevin Durant and the way he can score. So, I am going to leave it as that. As the best pure scorer the NBA has ever seen, KD will go down as an all-time great.

 

#1: LeBron James

LeBron James tops off my “Top 25 Players in the NBA” list. When I said it was hard to describe Kevin Durant? It is even harder to describe LeBron James. What LBJ did this past season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, leading the team back to their fourth straight finals appearance is only supposed to be possible in movies. LeBron James single-handedly dragged the Cavs to the finals, and that is an understatement. And if it was not for J.R. and his foolishness in game one of the NBA Finals, who knows how that series plays out.

LeBron James is simply great. Perhaps the greatest to ever play the game. Now, in Los Angeles, LABron will continue to cement his legacy as the best player in the NBA. 

 

Thanks for checking out the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings. Share the article and let me know what you think in the comments below!

Relax, Lakers fans, it’s about the 2018-19 offseason, and beyond.

JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, KCP, Lance Stephenson.

I know, I had the same reaction too.

Sure, McGee made a positive impact on last year’s NBA Finals. During those same playoffs, Rondo proved he still has a ton of game left, as he toyed with a blazing hot Portland team. Caldwell-Pope had a decent year as well. And Lance, well Lance was doing Lance things, for better or for worse. Are these the sexiest signings to pair with LeBron James? No.

Want to know what is sexy? Those four signings were all one year deals.

Want to know what is even sexier? I am going to tell you why not going for broke this year is the best move the Lakers could have made, and do so in 3 reasons.

 

1. LeBron James and the need for rest

LeBron James
AP

When Michael Jordan retired from the NBA to pursue professional baseball, most of sports fandom was either confused or shocked. Or both. As LeBron approaches Jordan’s legacy, many analysts and pundits alike are keen on bringing up the fact that MJ simply walked away from the game. He did so at the height of his powers, no less.

LeBron can do something similar without actually leaving the game. The King has played 239 playoff games in his career. 239. Woah. Some simple math tells us that James has tacked on about 3 extra seasons onto his career so far (2.91, to be exact.) In total, Lebron has played about 18 seasons of professional basketball already!

Are the Lakers expected to win the title this year? Hell no. A Western Conference Finals appearance would be a huge success, while a semi-finals loss is the most likely outcome. By saving the extra miles on LeBron, Los Angele fans get to see him extend his prime. But, there may be a bonus as well…

LeBron is a rational man. Presumably, he signed with LA knowing that they would not truly compete for the title next year. But a man chasing Jordan has to pursue something, right? I fully expect for Lebron to have his sights set on the NBA MVP next year. He will not walk away from a single season without anything to show for it. If Kawhi is added to the Lakers, it only enhances his odds due to a greater chance at overall team success, something voters consider heavily. LeBron could win the MVP for a 5th time, and do so during season 16; a feat which had never been accomplished before.

 

2. A changing NBA landscape

Warriors-1.jpg

It pains me to say this, truly: Deep down, we all know who will win the 2018-2019 NBA Finals. My favorite team, the Boston Celtics. Okay, you can laugh a bit. In all seriousness, the winner will most likely be the Golden State Warriors.

Houston may have a healthy CP3 this time around, but they also lost core pieces such as Trevor Ariza (Phoenix) and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (Clippers.) Maybe the Rockets can add Carmelo, but I am skeptical that he would put them over the top. Philadelphia is a fun choice, and their chemistry will only grow, but can they get past a Celtics team that is adding a healthy Kyrie and Gordon Hayward? Cs versus Warriors. Pencil it in. Helluva series.

After next year, however…things get dicey.

Especially for some NBA contenders, and players who want to compete in the finals.

In the 2019-2020 NBA Offseason:

Golden State could lose Klay Thompson/Kevin Durant
Boston could lose Al Horford and/or Kyrie Irving
Minnesota could lose Jimmy Butler
San Antonio could will lose Kawhi Leonard

In the 2020-2021 NBA Offseason:

Golden State could lose Draymond Green, Iggy, or Shaun Livingston
Houston could lose Eric Gordon
Boston could lose Gordon Hayward/Al Horford

What’s the point? There is a very good chance that the superteams LeBron will face during the 2018-2019 season and playoffs will not be intact in the near future. Can the Warriors afford to max out 4 players? Bill Simmons, also known as the “Durant Whisperer,” recently went on a podcast and intimated that Durant could leave the Warriors in the not-so-distant future.

If Houston brings back Capela, will they be able to keep their key pieces as well? Will Kyrie and Gordon Hayward come back to a Cs team brimming with younger talent? These are all reasonable questions to ask. Even Philadelphia could have a Fultz problem, or lose the perpetually underrated JJ Redick, who is only getting better with age.

NBA player movement has never been as rampart. Lebron James has almost single handedly ushered in a new era for professional basketball; one where players leverage their stardom to decide where they want to play.

Despite a playoff drought which has lasted seemingly forever, this is not the year for Lakers fans to want a shot at the title.

 

3. Cap space, cap space, and more cap space.

LeBron James
CBS Sports

 

It would not be an article from me if I did not provide a graphic of a team’s future salary obligations, right? Without further ado…

lakers cap space.PNG

See those beautiful red rectangle things I drew? That represents how much money the Lakers owe their players in both 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. At first glance, it does not seem like they have too much cap space next year. Yet, check out what Zach Lowe said about the impending cap spikes:

Now things have gotten a little more interesting.

As of now, Magic Johnson and co. have about 28 million dollars in cap space to spend next year. If they trade away young assets Svi Mykhailiuk or Isaac Bonga, they can obtain enough space to make a free agent a max offer, or get damn close to it. Playing in LA with the best player of a generation may help persuade players to forget about a couple million dollars.

Imagine they sign Kawhi Leonard next offseason. According to Sam Vecenie, Kawhi could come at a max price of 32.4 million dollars during his first year. That would still leave LA with around 21 million dollars to spend the following offseason. Sure they have to decide if they want to match any restricted free agency deal for Brandon Ingram. Yet, if they use the stretch provision to get off of Luol Deng’s ugly contract, or trade him into space, they could get near the cap room to possibly bring in another big name free agent.

Oh, and you will want to check out the potential free agent crop for the next two years:

Kevin Durant
Kemba Walker
Klay Thompson
Goran Dragic
Jimmy Butler
Kawhi Leonard
Khris Middleton
Al Horford
Kyrie Irving
Tobias Harris
DeAndre Jordan
Draymond Green
Andre Drummond
DeMarcus Cousins
Julius Randle
J.J. Redick

I’m not a gambling man, but I am betting that the Lakers land at least one of these guys over the next two years. They have the cap space, talent, and destination appeal to do it.

Not impressed by the names “Redick,” “Middleton,” “Harris, “Randle,” or “Dragic?” Not including Kevin Love, LeBron just took a team of scrubs to the NBA Finals, and lost two of those games in the finals minutes or overtime. The King doesn’t need much, just a handful of trusty knights who won’t miss free throws or mismanage the clock.

The NBA landscape changes faster than ever now, and it is a zero-sum game. In other words, if a team loses a star player, that means another team is gaining a star player.

And whether it is by trades or signings, the Lakers have as good a chance as any team of landing that star player…or *gulp*…players.