Posts Tagged ‘Jodie Meeks’

OKC shopping should start with Carter

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

The aging Vince Carter still has enough in his tank to put a contender over.

The aging Vince Carter has enough in his tank to give a title contender a significant boost.

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — As the free agency clock ticks down, the spotlight is shining brightest on Miami’s Big Three, on Carmelo Anthony‘s decision and on the Lakers’ wishful pursuit of a superstar (or two).

And then there’s that little ole team on the Oklahoma prairie that no one’s talking about. The one with the league MVP, the All-Star point guard and the game’s fiercest shot blocker. The one that’s played in three Western Conference finals in the last four years and if not for key injuries in these last two postseasons might have built upon its lone NBA Finals appearance in 2012.

The one that’s missing one final piece.

Oklahoma City Thunder enter free agency, not as big spenders and not needing much, but with a silver bullet in-hand (the full mid-level exception worth $5.3 million) and a specific target: A hired gun.

Signing a veteran knock-down 3-point shooter is crucial for this franchise on the doorstep. A Big Three of sorts that specializes in the long ball is set to hit the open market at the stroke of midnight: Vince Carter, Mike Miller and Mo Williams.

The 37-year-old Carter arguably stands as the most intriguing of the three, a reformed skywalker as he beats back Father Time and now a dead-eye 3-point shooter who has been called the league’s best bargain and most underpaid player during his three seasons with Dallas.

Carter, who has hit 40 percent of his 3s in the last two seasons with Dallas, and averaged 11.9 ppg last season, has stated his desire to remain with the Mavs, and Dallas wants him back. But Carter will also be pursued by a handful of contenders and teams on the verge of contending. A league source indicated that Oklahoma City, Miami, Toronto and Portland will give Dallas competition for Carter’s services.

Any one of those three free agents would be a boon to the Thunder’s second unit and each could play a key role spacing the floor and splashing open 3s while on the floor with league MVP Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook, who was headed to a fourth consecutive All-Star berth until another knee surgery forced him out just after Christmas.

The Thunder’s core — Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka — is obviously set and they rely heavily on drafting and player development to fill key roles. Reggie Jackson has emerged as a terrific reserve point guard. Shooting guard Jeremy Lamb could potentially move into the starting lineup next season. The Kendrick Perkins problem was lessened last season with the emergence of 7-foot rookie center Steven Adams.

However, the 3-point shooting issue remains. Thabo Sefolosha lost his touch from the deep all season and specifically in the postseason. The Thunder’s defensive-minded starter the last five seasons is now a free agent, and will likely move on. Veteran small forward Caron Butler, an early March addition, shot poorly in the postseason and he, too, will likely be headed elsewhere. Jackson, although an improving 3-point shooter, was still just 33.9 percent last season. And Lamb, at 35.6 percent, struggled in the season’s second half and lost his job to Butler.

OKC does believe it could find in-house help from second-year stretch-4 Grant Jerrett, a 2013 second-round draft pick, who shot 36.4 percent from deep for the Thunder’s D-League affiliate in Tulsa, Okla. But the 6-foot-10 project out of Arizona didn’t play a minute for the big club once he was signed in April.

The 6-foot-8 Miller almost signed with OKC last summer after Miami used the amnesty clause to set him free, but he ultimately returned to Memphis, which finished last in the league in 3-point attempts per game. So he might relish a chance to play with two superstars in an offense that will guarantee him more looks.

Williams, who opted out of his final year in Portland at $2.8 million, is a terrific shooter and can switch between the 1 and 2. He lacks the size of the other two, but was a big part of the Portland’s surge last season.

Other free-agent candidates include Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, P.J. Tucker, Josh McRoberts and C.J. Miles.

Here’s a look at my top three:

 

Vince Carter 

Age: 37 (Jan. 26)

2013-14 salary: $3.18 million

2013-14 stats: 81 games; 24.4 mpg; 11.9 ppg; 3.5 rpg; 2.6 apg; 40.7 FG%; 39.4 3FG%

Pros: Has adjusted his game with his age to become a knock-down 3-point shooter — and he can still get to the rim more often than expected; a solid locker-room leader for a young team that probably grew up watching him in dunk contests; and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has consistently lauded his defensive effort.

Cons: He’s prone to forcing too many contested jumpers; at some point the body is going to give out and Carter, although extremely well-conditioned, does turn 38 during the season.

 

Mike Miller

Age: 34 (Feb. 19)

2013-14 salary: $884,293 million (owed $12.8 million by Heat for 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons)

2013-14 stats: 82 games; 20.8 mpg; 7.1 ppg; 2.5 rpg; 1.6 apg; 48.1 FG%; 45.9 3FG%

Pros: Still a deadly 3-point shooter as Thunder fans can attest during the first round as they gasped in fear every time he lined up from the top of the arc; Just being on the floor would space it better than with any combination OKC put on the court last season.

Cons: He’s been susceptible to back issues, but he stayed healthy last season and played in all 82 games while still logging 20 minutes a game. He’s risky, but as just a threat to make 3s, is worth it.

 

Mo Williams

Age: 31 (Dec. 19)

2013-14 salary: $2.8 million

2013-14 stats: 74 games; 24.8 mpg; 9.7 ppg; 2.1 rpg; 4.3 apg; 41.7 FG%; 36.9 3FG%

Pros: He’s acknowledged he’s on the back portion of his career, so he knows his rightful place is coming off the bench and sparking a team with instant offense — exactly what the Thunder needs; can play the 1 and 2, and is a good passer.

Cons: His size could be a detriment since the Thunder are likely to let the 6-foot-5 Sefolosha walk in free agency and already have the 6-foot-3 Jackson likely coming off the bench. If Lamb proves he’s not ready to be a starter, OKC could prefer a two-guard with more size.

Morning Shootaround – Jan. 12


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Knicks interested in Miller | Turkoglu impresses Doc | Report: Toronto plans to keep Lowry | Drake Night a success | Meeks nears court incentive

No. 1: Report: Knicks interested in Miller — The New York Knicks are finally hitting their stride and much of their recent success can be linked to the return of point guard Raymond Felton. Felton has missed a lot of time this season with a lingering groin injury, which conceivably could return at anytime. The success the Knicks have experienced with solid point guard play makes their reported interest in the Denver Nuggets’ disgruntled Andre Miller reasonable, as ESPN’s Marc Stein reports:

You’ll recall that the Knicks were originally at the front of the queue trying to trade for [Kyle] Lowry in mid-December when the Raps were shopping him hard in the wake of the Rudy Gay deal with Sacramento. The Knicks are now said to want to work their way into the bidding for Denver’s very available Andre Miller, but the same problem that doomed New York in the Lowry chase a month ago — limited assets to offer — doesn’t bring much hope.

***

No. 2: Turkoglu impresses Doc — Longtime NBA veteran Hedo Turkoglu has made it known to contenders that he still wants to play in the league after he was waived by the Orlando Magic a little more than a week ago. He’s received interest from both teams in Los Angeles and recently put on a show for Clippers’ head coach Doc Rivers, according to Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles:

The Clippers also brought in forward Hedo Turkoglu for a meeting and a workout Thursday. They liked what they saw but don’t plan on signing him anytime soon. The Clippers would have to cut a player to make room for any new additions.

“He made shots from everywhere,” Rivers said of Turkoglu. “He looked good. It was a good workout, but we’re not doing anything anytime soon, but he did look good.”

***

No. 3: Toronto plans to keep LowryAfter the Toronto Raptors traded Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, reports out of Toronto suggested that it was the first of many deals as new general manager Masai Ujiri planned to tear-down the current roster. But since the trade, the Raptors have surged and now lead the Atlantic Division with a record of 18-17. Now reports say the Raptors plan to keep point guard Kyle Lowry, who recently made his first appearance on our Kia MVP Ladder. From ESPN’s Marc Stein:

For the first time, there are certifiable rumbles emanating from Toronto suggesting that the Raptors might well keep point guard Kyle Lowry for the rest of the season. Word is new GM Masai Ujiri continues to resist locking into any sort of firm position — leaving open the possibility of a Lowry deal if the offers suddenly get sweeter — but team officials appear to be growing increasingly comfortable with the idea that it’s better to go for what would be just Toronto’s third playoff berth in 13 seasons rather than try to do the absolute uber-tanking it would take from here for the 17-17 Raps to get [a top draft pick].

***


VIDEO: Drake announces Raptors starting lineup

No. 4: Drake Night a successThe Toronto Raptors made a great decision when they decided to name rapper Aubrey ‘Drake’ Graham their global brand ambassador. The first of what one would assume will be many Drake Nights was held at the Air Canada Center last night. Drake announced the starting lineup, wore this amazing suit and sat courtside next to the Raptors bench. Best of all for fans who attended the game, the Drake Night shirts which were given to each fan at the game are now selling on Ebay for $150+. Erik Koreen of The National Post writes a great recap of the night:

The great thing about Drake — and there is no irony in the use of “great” here — is the dichotomy that defines him. Sometimes, he is just so darned earnest, such an emotional open book. To the openhearted, that is wonderful; to the jaded, it is a bit embarrassing. And then sometimes, he is able to wink at that.The guy has a sense of humour about himself, which is a large part of his appeal. He charms you into liking him. If he took himself as seriously as it seems he does in his confessional lyrics, it would be absurd. The fact that he embraces the mockery, and even takes part, puts the hip-hop artist standing in as the Toronto Raptors’ global brand ambassador just on the right side of tolerable.

As soon as you want to give him, and this whole idea of him representing the Raptors, the benefit of the doubt, the preposterousness of the whole arrangement looms again.

“Tonight isn’t a Drake show. It has nothing really to do with Drake,” Drake said before Drake Night, an evening that was a glorification of Drake’s brand, only tangibly related to the Toronto Raptors’ 96-80 win over the Brooklyn Nets.

“It has nothing really to do with me. I’m just going to be sitting there. The fact that people want to come out, participate, get a free t-shirt: if that’s what it takes to put people in the stands, than every night could be Drake Night if you want.”

To be fair, Drake was  involved throughout the whole evening, not content to just sit in his courtside seats. That was a frequent criticism of Jay-Z during his short tenure as a minority owner of the Nets. Drake took over from long time public-address announcer Herbie Kuhn to introduce the Raptors’ starting lineup. Within, Drake shouted out Scarborough Town Centre, noted that Kyle Lowry kind of looks like Chris Tucker and called head coach Dwane Casey “dashingly handsome.” (“That’s not what my mirror says,” Casey said after the game) He was clearly having some fun.

During the first quarter intermission, Drake joined the team’s cheerleaders and second-string mascot, Stripes, to toss t-shirts into the sold-out crowd. At halftime, Drake’s official DJ, Future the Prince, played a brief set. After which, Drake gave out some branded Jordan sneakers, as most of the sold-out crowd looked up at the 27-year-old star in awe. Most importantly, he was visibly into the game as DeMar DeRozan took it over in the third quarter.

“I think we’re just trying to give people something exciting to look at and give them an atmosphere that’s just a little bit more invigorating,” Drake said.

***

No. 5: Meeks nears court incentiveMost NBA contracts are laced with incentives. Play this many minutes, get this much money. Start this many games, get this much money. It’s a typical practice and allows teams to have some confidence that they won’t pay a player too much for limited contribution. It also allows a player to earn his worth. In Los Angeles, Jodie Meeks is more than halfway towards some pretty nice incentives from the Lakers, according to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times:

Injuries have opened up an opportunity for Lakers guard Jodie Meeks, who has started 30 of 37 games this season.

Meeks is now more than halfway to hitting an incentive in his contract that would reward him with an additional $200,000.

According to his agreement with the Lakers, Meeks has a base compensation of $1.45 million for the 2013-14 season.

If he averages at least 20 minutes through a minimum of 70 games, Meeks will earn an additional $100,000.

Meeks hit a similar incentive last season, averaging 21.3 minutes a game to bump his $1.4-million salary to $1.5 million.

Should Meeks stay at 25 minutes a game or higher, he’ll be rewarded with an additional $100,000.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Josh Smith hit a game-winning runner for the Pistons … The Wizards-Rockets game was lengthened due to two rain delays … Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak wants Nick Young to be a Laker for a “long time”Taj Gibson threw down a huge dunk over Bismack Biyombo

ICYMI of The Night: Brandon Jennings dished out 16 assists in the first half against the Phoenix Suns last night. Although it’s disappointing he only finished with 18 dimes (still a Detroit Pistons franchise-record), this one to Andre Drummond off the backboard makes up for the second half slump:


VIDEO: Jennings to Drummond off the window

Goal For Celtics, Lakers Should Be Same

The Lakers have gone 2-4 since Kobe Bryant's return. ( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Lakers have gone 2-4 since Kobe Bryant’s return. ( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The Lakers and Celtics own one of the most glorious rivalries in all of sports. Through the decades they’ve battled one another with teams as different as their respective coastlines.

Yet this version of the Lakers just might be better off accepting the Danny Ainge philosophy: “Making the playoffs is not a goal.”

The Celtics’ president of basketball operations said he needed to explain that a little bit, so I will, too.

Yes, the franchises’ strategies seem completely at odds. Ainge made the tough call to finally bust it up and trade Kevin Garnett and Boston’s beloved Paul Pierce and start from scratch, even with a new rookie coach. Ainge’s commitment to recovering All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo is even in question. The Lakers meanwhile locked up their living legend, Kobe Bryant, for another two years and $48.5 million.

But just as Ainge is looking forward, it’s Kobe’s next two years I’m looking at, not this one. It’s during this time that I implore Kobe to not go nuts trying to sneak into the postseason as he did a season ago. But, as was predictable, that will be difficult.

After the Lakers pulled out an 88-85 win at Charlotte on Saturday night, their first W following three consecutive Ls with Kobe back from his awful April Achilles injury, No. 24 went all anti-Ainge, tenfold.

“I want to win a championship,” he told reporters. “I want to be playing in June.”

The inconvenient truth — and it’s really no secret to most — is that these Lakers are no closer to contending for a championship than Brad Stevens‘ plucky squad. They don’t defend or rebound well and they’re not exactly an offensive juggernaut either (ranking 20th in offensive efficiency). Tuesday night’s narrow win at Memphis, a struggling team playing without Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, made the Lakers 2-4 with Kobe and 12-13 overall. Essentially the same record as the 12-14 Celtics.

Ainge views the Celtics’ applaudable start (and his comments came when they were 10-14, still a better mark than most expected) as a byproduct of a laughable Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division, which they somehow lead and therefore occupy the No. 4 seed. Boston is 9-7 against the East and Ainge cringes thinking about making the playoffs with a losing record in this anomaly of a season and losing out on Draft position, in this coveted Draft.

The Lakers, predicted by most to miss the playoffs with or without Kobe, should view their 12-13 mark as a byproduct of a rugged West. L.A. is 5-3 against the East and 7-10 in its own conference after nipping the depleted Grizzlies.

It can even be argued that when Rondo, Boston’s last remaining player from its recent glory years, returns from his ACL injury that he will join a more talented collection of teammates than the ragtag bunch Kobe inherited. That’s bad news if you’re in the West.

Think about Kobe’s crew: Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, Jordan Hill and conflicted pal Pau Gasol, the only other remaining member of the 2010 title team. Jordan Farmar (a role player on the ’10 team left before re-signing this season) could return from injury soon and Steve Blake will be back in a month or so. No one can be sure about Steve Nash. To think this crew can leap into the West playoff fray with any hope of advancing would seem reckless California dreaming.

Rondo, if he’s not already traded, will join Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Vitor Faverani and Kelly Olynyk. Depending how Ainge proceeds with the roster, Brooklyn would seem the only hope from keeping his team built for the lottery from maddeningly backing into the division title.

Ainge knows, and Kobe should, too, that the 2008 and 2010 Finals aren’t walking through that door.

But Kobe doesn’t do lowered expectations, not when he’s got five rings and hungry for a sixth. But for this one season, making the playoffs at all costs can’t be the goal.

“We will get better,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after the 122-97 loss at OKC, Kobe’s third game back. “Just check in on us in a couple weeks and see where we are.”

It’s hard to see these Lakers in the top eight, whether in a couple weeks or a couple months. The roster presents little opportunity to make a blockbuster, game-changing-type trade. If L.A. did sneak into an eighth or seventh seed like last season, it would only serve as first-round fodder for the Thunder or Spurs, while valuable ground would be lost in the race that matters more — Draft slotting.

L.A. has already accomplished its two prime goals for this season: Kobe is back, and his autograph is fresh on a new contract. Now general manager Mitch Kupchak and D’Antoni must make sure that his raging competitive drive doesn’t take him off the cliff of physical limitation. They must evaluate their young talent and determine who can help most over a two-year championship push.

Then, with a stroke of Laker luck, nab a difference-maker in the Draft and follow with smart free-agent acquisitions to form a solid nucleus for Kobe’s sunset drive.

These are the goals. Making the playoffs is not.

Belinelli, Most Improved Shooter

Marco Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from 3-point range (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE )

Marco Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from 3-point range. (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE )

The List

Biggest improvement, effective field-goal percentage

2012-13 2013-14
Player FGA eFG% FGA eFG% Diff.
Marco Belinelli 610 46.0% 140 63.6% 17.6%
Michael Beasley 766 43.4% 119 58.4% 15.0%
Andre Iguodala 879 50.2% 110 65.0% 14.8%
Jodie Meeks 530 50.2% 198 61.9% 11.7%
Wesley Matthews 808 54.0% 238 64.9% 10.9%
Tony Allen 638 44.8% 128 55.1% 10.3%
Jeremy Lin 897 49.0% 155 57.7% 8.7%
Spencer Hawes 811 48.3% 236 57.0% 8.7%
Markieff Morris 653 44.2% 196 52.0% 7.9%
Klay Thompson 1,205 50.9% 352 58.7% 7.8%

Minimum 500 FGA in 2012-13 and 100 FGA in 2013-14
EFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

The Context

It’s interesting how a different team can make a player better. The top two guys on this list went from bottom-10 offensive teams last season to top-10 offensive teams this season. Marco Belinelli went from the Rose-less Bulls to the Spurs, while Michael Beasley went from the Suns to the Heat. Andre Iguodala was part of a top-five offense last season, but the Warriors certainly space the floor a lot better than the Nuggets did.

Speaking of floor spacing, Belinelli is shooting a ridiculous 30-for-53 (57 percent) from 3-point range after going 2-for-3 in Tuesday’s win in Toronto. He’s also shooting 51 percent from inside the arc.

Is it a product of the system? Do Tony Parker‘s pick-and-roll brilliance and the Spurs’ ball movement produce more open shots for Belinelli?

First of all, only 54 of Belinelli’s 140 shots have come with Parker on the floor. He actually has shot better with Parker on the bench. He’s played more minutes with Patty Mills as his point guard and has been assisted 22 times by Manu Ginobili. Mills’ improvement, Ginobili’s resurrection and Belinelli’s shooting are big reasons why the Spurs are 16-4 despite an underperforming starting lineup.

According to SportVU, 61 percent of Belinelli’s shots have been uncontested* this season, a jump from 56 percent last season. But the jump is all in his 2-point attempts. In the 20 Bulls games that were tracked by SportVU last season, none of Belinelli’s 47 2-point attempts were uncontested. This season, 42 of his 87 2-point attempts have been uncontested.

*Uncontested: The nearest defender is at least four feet away.

Both years, most of his 3-point attempts (87 percent last season and 83 percent this season) have been uncontested. But he’s shooting them much better with the Spurs. He’s also 6-for-9 on contested threes this year.

So it’s very possible that this is just a fluky start to the season for Belinelli. Or maybe there’s something in the Riverwalk water.

There is one more aspect to Belinelli’s shooting that SportVU can clue us in on: whether he’s shooting more off the catch or off the dribble.

In games tracked by SportVU last season, 60 percent of Belinelli’s shots were catch-and-shoot. This season, that number is up to 75 percent. But again, he’s shooting much better on those catch-and-shoot jumpers this year.

While the Spurs run the most beautiful offense in the league and that offense certainly makes players look better than they would elsewhere, it’s hard to believe that Belinelli’s shooting numbers are very sustainable.

The Video

Here’s video of Belinelli’s six 3-point attempts against the Rockets on Nov. 30. One was a half-court heave, three were wide-open looks on feeds from Ginobili, one was a semi-heat-check, and the last was a rushed shot with the Spurs down four in the closing seconds. If you’re a Spurs fan, you have to love the way Ginobili has been playing.

And if you really like your meatballs spicy, here are all 30 of Belinelli’s made 3-pointers this season.

The bottom of the list

Kosta Koufos is the anti-Belinelli, with a regression of 13.6 percent. That mark edges out Kevin Garnett (-12.7 percent), Jerryd Bayless (-11.4 percent), Patrick Patterson (-10.6 percent) and Tyreke Evans (-9.4 percent). Koufos had an effective field-goal percentage of 58.1 percent on 508 shots with Denver last season and is at 44.5 percent on 146 shots with Memphis this season.

Trivia question

To qualify for the above list, you had to have attempted at least 500 shots last season. There are five players who had at least 500 field-goal attempts last season and have not played a game this season. Four of them are on rosters and are injured: Carlos Delfino, Danilo Gallinari, Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor. Can you name the fifth?

Random notes

  • Chris Paul has 84 assists to Blake Griffin this season and no other combination has nearly that number. Next on the list of teammate-to-teammate assists is Jeff Teague and Al Horford, who have hooked up for 62 of Horford’s buckets.
  • Paul, Griffin and the Clippers have the No. 1 home offense, scoring 111.2 points per 100 possessions in 10 home games. But they have just the 17th best road offense, scoring only 100.9 points per 100 possessions in 12 road games. Their differential of 10.3 isn’t the biggest in the league. That belongs to the Mavs, who have scored 10.9 more points per 100 possessions at home than they have on the road.
  • The biggest defensive differential belongs to the Rockets, who have allowed 14.9 fewer points per 100 possessions at home. Houston ranks third defensively at home and 28th on the road. The good news is that they have the No. 1 road offense.
  • Deron Williams returned to the Nets’ lineup against Boston on Tuesday and Brooklyn played its best offensive game of the season, scoring about 116 points per 100 possessions against what was a top-10 defense. Point guards are important.

Trivia answer

Shannon Brown, who attempted 571 shots for the Suns last season. He was sent to the Wizards in the Marcin Gortat trade and was waived before the season.

Suspense Runs High As Kobe Returns


VIDEO: Rick Fox analyzes the impact of Kobe’s return

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — As the great Kobe Bryant rescues his flapping No. 24 jersey from all manner of inclement weather with tonight’s triumphant return, are his surprisingly buoyant Los Angeles Lakers really in need of a rescue mission? Or more a celebrated captain to take the wheel?

Staples Center will go goo-goo tonight as Bryant officially begins his 18th season against the wrong-place, wrong-time Toronto Raptors (pregame, 9 E.T., NBA TV). Kobe will be announced to the sell-out crowd and the roof will blow like Mt. Vesuvius. He’ll take his spot around the jump circle and it’ll be so electric in there it’ll feel like the Lakers are back in the NBA Finals, where so many predicted they would be last season before that star-studded roster quickly became as unhinged as characters in a Quentin Tarantino film.

Once the ball is in the air, once the juices start coursing through Kobe’s veins, what happens tonight and over the next 62 games that follow will be as riveting to watch as a Stephen King novel is to read. After all, the king of suspense joined Twitter (@StephenKing) the same day as the Lakers’ dramatic flapping-jersey video revealed Kobe’s return. Nothing in Hollywood is by coincidence, right?

Here’s the thing with Kobe’s return essentially one quarter into the season: For the first time in his career he starts a season a month late, on a team with multiple unfamiliar parts and, most notably, has established something of an identity and definitely a working chemistry without him.

Don’t get that confused with suggesting this team doesn’t need Kobe. That’s preposterous. Kobe’s capabilities coming off a torn Achilles tendon last April, and his adaptation to the team’s style of play, will dictate the level at which this otherwise off-rack roster can truly compete. Without him, as intriguing as they’ve been, the playoffs are as unlikely as Jack Nicholson gifting tonight’s courtside seat to Justin Bieber.

How Kobe chooses to assert himself will be fascinating to watch. Does he acknowledge this season’s progress and work to get his from within the framework and flow of the system, or does he try to strong-arm it?

The Lakers enter tonight’s game against a team Kobe once dropped 81 points on with a 10-9 record compared to 9-10 a year ago with he and Dwight Howard and the once-twinkling images of 70 wins and a championship already extinguished. Collective optimism has replaced pessimism this season as guys named Meeks and Young and Hill and Henry and Farmar have played hard and embraced camaraderie in a way last season’s Lakers team never could — or would.

What have the Lakers become without Kobe?

Surprisingly, an entertaining team whose performances can fluctuate wildly, and, stunningly, a team that is hard to hate, even for the most ardent Lakers haters. They’re playing in the mold of Mike D’Antoni — himself suddenly elevated from the echoes of “We want Phil” chants to early coach of the year consideration. They’re sharing the ball, quickening the pace, hustling and mostly having fun and enjoying each other. They’ve managed to be OK on the road — 4-5 — and hang in enough games to hold up their end of the bargain of hanging near .500 without Kobe despite scoring fewer points than they allow.

No other team in the league has a negative differential and a winning record.

Here’s two key stats that demonstrate D’Antoni’s system at work: The Lakers rank fourth in assists at 24.1 a game (they were 17th last season at 22.2); and they’re third in 3-point percentage at 40.7 (a significant upturn from last season — 35.5 percent to rank 19th) while putting up 26.3 attempts a game, third-most in the league.

Kobe’s buddy Pau Gasol is averaging 3.1 apg along with team highs of 14.5 ppg and 9.8 rpg. Jodie Meeks is shooting 47.3 percent from beyond the arc and averaging 13.5 ppg. Steve Blake is averaging 7.8 apg with 10.2 ppg. Before his injury, bench spark plug Jordan Farmar was dishing out 4.4 apg in 18.9 mpg. Xavier Henry provided an early season boost. Jordan Hill is bringing down 8.5 rpg in 21.6 mpg, including 3.3 on the offensive glass. Nick Young is as swaggy as ever, launching a high rate of bricks in Friday night’s comeback win at Sacramento until tossing in the dagger — a crunch-time scenario he might not see again with the Black Mamba’s return.

No Laker is averaging more than Blake’s 31.8 mpg and 10 are logging at least 17.3 mpg (excluding Steve Nash, who has played in just six games). Last season, Kobe averaged 38.6 mpg, a red-flag number some blamed for his Achilles blowout in his 78th game of the season, but also a number that Kobe, now 35, insisted on playing as the Lakers fought for a playoff spot.

Basically a lot of players are doing a lot of different things pretty well.

So what does Kobe do to make this team, one many pundits predicted would fail to make the playoffs, better? This is truly new — and fascinating — territory for Mr. Bryant.

Apologies, Mr. King, but the suspense is already killing me.

Lakers May Have Something In Reserve

VIDEO: The Lakers hold off the Hawks in Los Angeles.

j

HANG TIME WEST — Sunday night, it was five Lakers reserves logging at least 16 minutes, three of them starting the fourth quarter and another, Jordan Hill, playing the last 9:42 of a close win over the Hawks.

That came about after Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks and Hill kept L.A. in the game with prominent roles in the final period of a six-point loss to the Spurs, and after almost every sub got some run in the blowout defeat at the hands of the Warriors.

And that came after the opening-night statement during the victory over the Clippers. All of which came after everything.

Johnson is with his third team in as many seasons. Jordan Farmar played 39 NBA games the previous two seasons and spent 2012-13 in Turkey. Hill had 68 appearances the same two years and is coming off a torn hip muscle that cost him 49 games. Chris Kaman is on his fourth team in four years. Jodie Meeks is the shooting specialist who shot 38.7 percent last season. Xavier Henry was a training-camp invitee, Nick Young a guy trying to show he has more than swag.

This is a second unit inspired to prove a lot of people wrong, and this is a good start. What the Lakers exactly have won’t be known for a while, until Kobe Bryant returns from the torn Achilles’ tendon and the rotation settles, but even that blow to the depth does not change the encouraging impact from the first week. It also adds to the credibility to the preseason claim from coach Mike D’Antoni that the bench would be improved.

D’Antoni wasn’t exactly far out on the shaky branch when he said it — it would be difficult for the Lakers’ reserves to not be better than 2012-13. But point taken. Given the chance to immediately showcase the gains, D’Antoni’s all-reserve lineup — Meeks, Farmar, Henry, Johnson, Hill — played the entire fourth quarter of opening night, delivering a 41-24 scoring advantage those 12 minutes and a 116-103 victory over the Clippers. In all, 76 of the 116 points came from the bench, including each of the final 48.

“Hungry,” Farmar said of the personality of the subs. “I think passionate and together. We really believe in each other and we really lift each other up. We’ve got each others back. Move the ball, let everybody do what they do well. It’s working so far. Hopefully we can keep this energy up and stick to it.”

This group had been discarded and disregarded, overlooked and underappreciated. They had been playing on different continents and just trying to stay on the NBA map.

“We hear things,” said Johnson, the No. 4 pick by the Timberwolves in the 2010 draft who spent two seasons there and one in Phoenix before signing with the Lakers in July. “People are going to talk. They’re going to say whatever they want. But we’re not worried about it too much. We just have to continue to do what we do, be productive and show what we have.

“It fuels us. But we figured it’s going to be like that because the man is injured and the stuff that they went through last year is going to reflect on this year. They’re going to say stuff about us. Other than that, we’re just going to continue to play ball. We’re not really going to worry about it.”

The Lakers have started Pau Gasol, Shawne Williams and Steve Blake in each of the first four games, and Steve Nash in three of the four while holding him out of the other for rest. When Nash sat, Meeks started. Young was in the opening lineup the first three games before being replaced by Henry on Sunday against the Hawks, and Young responded with 13 points in 21 minutes.

McGrady Not Feeling It For Kobe, Lakers

a

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Tracy McGrady had to settle for a shotgun seat on the San Antonio Spurs Express to The NBA Finals last season to end his career with a lone trip out of the first round. Who knows, had McGrady ever had Spurs-like talent around him, things might have turned out differently for him.

At any rate, the borderline Hall of Famer can spot a lacking supporting cast when he sees one. He spotted just that Tuesday night while taking in some Jazz vs. Lakers preseason action. What he witnessed was so disturbing he felt compelled to take it to Twitter:

Jellybean is, of course, Kobe Bean Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers superstar and son of former ball player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant.

Kobe is working his way back from an awful Achilles tear in April and his return date remains uncertain. McGrady would apparently tell him to take his time getting back. No need to rush.

The 2013-14 Lakers, with or without Kobe, aren’t exactly high on anyone’s predictions chart. Check any Vegas sports book and this bunch is basically sitting at 75-to-1 odds to get Kobe that elusive sixth championship ring and knot him up with Michael Jordan.

Compared to all those souped-up Lakers squads through the decades, this one’s feeling like a stripped-down Vette with a leaky transmission. The horses under the hood buck instead of gallop and the suspension is all out of whack. You swear every time you turn the key it gives off that rotten egg odor.

Recently coach Mike D’Antoni said he was on drugs a year ago when he took over and proclaimed that team could average 110 ppg. And he was medicated on painkillers following knee replacement surgery. The disastrous 2012-13 team, with Bryant playing ungodly minutes night after night, averaged 102.2 ppg, which would have been pretty good if they had played any defense.

Without Bryant this preseason and with Steve Nash approaching 40 years of age by unfortunately grinding through seemingly just as many body ailments, scoring is down to 94.3 ppg. Only the Mavericks and Jazz have averaged less.

Speaking of the Mavs, everybody’s always quick to point to Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion as the only remaining members of the 2011 title team. The remnants from L.A.’s back-to-back title teams in 2009 and 2010? A rehabbing Kobe, a fragile-kneed Pau Gasol and a back-from-Europe Jordan Farmar.

To McGrady’s tweet, this is no Lamborghini waiting to be valet parked at Staples.

Assuming Nash is healthy enough to play (and start) on Oct. 29 when the Lakers open at home, to their misfortune against Doc Rivers‘ new team that shares the building, he’ll be joined by — and please don’t write this in ink — Steve Blake, Nick Young, Gasol and Chris Kaman, assuming the center has recovered from a bout of gastroenteritis.

As for Lakers depth? Among the newcomers are Xavier Henry in the backcourt and Shawne Williams in the frontcourt. The return of power forward Jordan Hill is a positive. Then there’s Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Ryan Kelly, Marcus Landry, Elias Harris and fan favorite Robert Sacre. One will have to go to get the roster down to the maximum 15.

Pedal to the metal? McGrady isn’t feeling it, apparently even after Kobe takes the wheel.

Lakers Know Painful End Is Upon Them

a

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol seemed to be reading the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers their inevitable last rites on the eve of Game 4 of their first-round series against the overpowering San Antonio Spurs.

“I’m proud of the team because we’ve been fighting so much,” the proud Gasol said following what most likely was the Lakers’ final practice of the season Saturday. “We earned the right to be in the playoffs. We competed really hard the first two games in San Antonio. We gave ourselves a chance against a a very tough team and deep team. So I’m happy and proud of how the guys have fought through what we’ve been through and what we’re going through, and that’s what I like to see, that’s what I’ll keep in my mind and in my heart.”

A subdued Howard expressed a similar sentiment the day after the most disappointing team in franchise history experienced its worst home playoff loss ever.

“Despite all the injuries, as a team we’ve stayed together,” Howard said. “When most teams fall apart and blame each other, point the finger, we stayed together. We’ve become a closer team throughout all the adversity.”

Does such a statement signal that the chronically indecisive Howard sees his future in purple and gold?

“I haven’t thought about it,” Howard said.

Gasol or Howard or both might be playing their final game as a Laker. Howard, as a free agent come July 1, controls his future. Gasol, owed $19.3 million next season as part of an $83.1 million Laker payroll before potentially re-signing Howard, does not. Gasol could be traded or set free via the amnesty clause.

“What happens next,” Gasol said, “is totally up to the team and management.”

Gasol has seen it all during this often torturous season. He was benched in the fourth quarter by coach Mike D’Antoni in just the coach’s third game at helm, and then embarrassed by D’Antoni after the loss at Memphis. D’Antoni explained his decision to sit Gasol with this infamous statement: “I was thinking ‘Oh, I’d like to win this game.'”

Gasol played in just 49 games this season, knocked out by a concussion, by plantar fasciitis and by degenerative tendinosis in both knees that he said he’ll tackle this summer. Still, Gasol, along with Howard, is the last of the Lakers starters still standing heading into Sunday’s closing act against a Spurs team determined to put L.A. out of its misery if only to assure itself an extended rest before beginning round two.

Gasol has soldiered on, averaging 13.3 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 6.7 apg in the Lakers’ three opening losses in this series.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster this year,” Gasol said. “It’s been a very challenging season in different ways. Injuries, ups and downs, just a lot of things that had an effect on our team. We can’t really think about all that right now. It’s something that we’ll probably go back and go, ‘Wow all those things really happened,’ and those things happened for a reason. But again, it has been a difficult, challenging season.”

D’Antoni on Saturday acknowledged that he has regrets from his early, defiant takeover of the Lakers, likely the way he humiliated Gasol and tried to force his run-and-gun system on a club better suited for slow-it-down. He wasn’t ready to talk about those with faint hope for a miraculous comeback just 24 hours away.

“There’s a lot of regrets right now,” D’Antoni said. “But let’s talk about that later. Let’s try to win.”

That’s not likely considering Howard and Gasol will be the only starters in Game 4 that the Lakers figured to have in the playoffs. Joining Kobe Bryant on the injured list Sunday will be Steve Nash and Metta World Peace from the starting five, plus backcourt reserves Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake.

RIP, 2012-13 Lakers.

Lakers Need Goudelock To Back Up Talk

 

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — As two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash walked away from Friday morning’s shootaround sharing very little confidence of being able to play in tonight’s Game 3 against the San Antonio Spurs, newly crowned D-League MVP Andrew Goudelock strode in high-stepping over his own swagger.

Goudelock said the plan is for him to start tonight at point guard if Nash is unable to go. Nash said he’s feeling better, but is a “long way from being NBA-ready.” With Steve Blake out indefinitely, Jodie Meeks doubtful and Kobe Bryant on crutches, L.A. will likely be without its top four guards. Goudelock and Darius Morris would run the backcourt.

That means the 6-foot-3 Goudelock will draw San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker on the defensive end. How does Goudelocke, with 425 minutes of NBA action under his belt, plan to do that?

“Just stay in front of him,” Goudelock said, matter-of-factly. “He’s a really quick guy, don’t let him get anything in transition, stay up on the pick-and-rolls. He’s got to guard me too, so I’m not really worried about Tony Parker.”

Goudelock averaged 21.4 ppg in the D-League and he has 175 total points in 41 career NBA games, or the amount Parker has scored in his last games — and that was playing through nagging injuries.

“I’ve always been a scorer, put the ball in the basket,” Goudelock said. “I lost a lot of weight so I’m a lot quicker. I just bring a lot of energy. Those guys don’t really know me, so I can bring something unexpected. With my scoring ability I think I can help a lot.”

The Lakers could certainly use it. They’ve scored 79 and 91 points and shot 43.2 percent in falling in a 2-0 hole

As the point guard, Goudelock said he can pass the ball, too, and find Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol for looks inside. He had never played the point until this season, but he says he’s a greatly improved passer. The Lakers players, although they haven’t seen much of him this season, expressed confidence in Goudelock’s game.

Kobe had already nicknamed him “Mini Mamba” for his scoring ability and attack mentality.

“People have to always honor my scoring, so it makes it easier to pass the ball because I get so much attention because they know that I can score and they probably don’t think I’m gonna pass it,” Goudelock said. “I’ve seen scouting reports from other teams that will be like ‘he’s not going to pass it.’ So it makes it that much easier for me to get 10 or 11 assists in the D-League because I’m getting double-teamed, getting so much attention, they know I can score, so it makes it easier for a guy like me, whether if I wasn’t a scorer as much it might be a little bit tougher because guys might be able to sag off me or do some other things.

“But being able to score and add that scoring punch takes a lot of load off my shoulders.”

That will be Parker’s problem, apparently. But one thing Goudelock will have to watch when he’s guarding the shifty Parker is the ticky-tack-type foul that he picked up during his brief appearance in Game 2.

“It’s going to happen. I’m a young guy, they don’t know me, they’re going to call that,” Goudelock said. “I’m ready for it. I’m ready for all of this. It doesn’t matter. I’ve been doing this since I was about 5 years old. It’s no different from if it’s Tony Parker or a guy in the D-League. They’re going to have to guard me, I’m going to have to guard them, it’s all basketball.”

Goudelock certainly talks the talk. The Lakers now need him to walk the walk.

L.A. Pressure Falls On Howard, Gasol

 

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Dwight Howard believes.

No Kobe Bryant. No Steve Blake. Almost assuredly no Jodie Meeks. And most likely no Steve Nash.

No matter. Howard says he still believes.

“We have total confidence that we can come back and win this series, and we believe in each other,” Howard said following Friday’s workout when the Los Angeles Lakers learned of their worsening injury woes. “We worked too hard to get in the playoffs. We had to fight to get in and we’re not going to give up just because we’re down and have a lot of guys that are injured.”

The Lakers’ rickety season is once again on the brink Friday night as their first-round playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs moves to the Staples Center. With the Spurs up 2-0, it’s do-or-die for a limping Lakers team that could be forced to start a backcourt of two third-team, 2011 second-round draft picks in Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock.

While Nash told reporters Thursday that his fingers are crossed that two epidural shots to his back will work in time to allow him to play in Game 3 (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), Howard was working overtime with assistant coach Chuck Person with a helping hand from general manager Mitch Kupchak, a pretty good post player in his day with the Showtime Lakers.

It’ll be curtains for these slow-time Lakers unless the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Howard, once upon a time referred to as Superman, and his 7-foot frontcourt mate Pau Gasol, can assert their will on the Spurs and lift their less well-known teammates back into the series.

“Again, it is what it is,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said of the bleak injury situation. “It’s not what anybody wishes for, but at the same time we need to dominate inside and that’s Pau and Dwight. So it’s a big load for Pau and Dwight. At the same time, that’s how we’re going to have to do it.”

Howard, praised for his dominant play in the final two games of the regular season after Kobe went down to get the Lakers in the playoffs, has taken critical shots for not getting it done in the opening two games in San Antonio. He’s averaged 18.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg and five fouls per game.

Everybody wants to see Howard rise to the occasion, to be a force that takes games away from the opponent. He took criticism for not being that dominant force in Game 2, scoring 16 points — same as Blake as well as the Spurs’ Kahwi Leonard and Tim Duncan — with nine rebounds, four blocks and five fouls when the Lakers had chances to keep the game close.

For Gasol, just 5-for-14 from the floor in Game 2, these could be his final games as a Laker. Well into the luxury tax next season, the organization will have to decide what to do with the player who is due $19.3 million next season and was all but traded to New Orleans last offseason before the blockbuster deal for Chris Paul was vetoed by commissioner David Stern.

Of course, Howard’s future is just as unsettled, although his future is at least in his own hands. The Lakers are desperate to sign him to a max deal this summer and make him the cornerstone of the franchise upon Bryant’s eventual retirement.

For now, it’s all about Game 3 and if Howard, reduced to 14th in this season’s voting for Defensive Player of the Year, and Gasol can play like the superstars their salaries say they are, and get L.A. a win.

“We just got to play,” Howard said. “We can’t control anybody’s injuries. We can’t control nothing but how hard we go out there and play. Me and Pau are going to do the best we can for this team.”