TrueHoop: Los Angeles Lakers

Carlos Boozer and the Lakers' offseason

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
9:12
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Amin Elhassan take stock of the Lakers offseason after the acquisitions of Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis.

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Delonte West, going for it again

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Delonte WestDominic DiSaia for ESPNAfter two years out of action, Delonte West is attempting a comeback with the Clippers in Vegas.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ summer league squad has just beaten the Miami Heat’s summer iteration 91-85, in part because of Delonte West’s heady play. As West strolls off the floor, he’s besieged by well-wishers, players and former players alike. It’s unclear if West notices, but a young man in a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey starts screaming, “LeBron James! LeBron James!” at West from seats overhanging the locker room tunnel. The heckler shouts downward at West, from directly above West’s head, as the 30-year-old point guard continues to the locker room, surrounded by friendly faces.

As LeBron is returning to his Ohio roots, his former Cleveland teammate is attempting to reboot his NBA career. West hasn’t played in the league since 2011-12, after a fraught divorce with the Mavericks. It appears he has a window of opportunity with the Clippers this summer. Doc Rivers says he’s considering West for a spot on his roster. It would be a resurrection of a career that has an almost haunted quality, given how associated West is with a time and place in LeBron’s saga that ended so abruptly. A combination of West’s personal struggles and misinformation about those struggles has fueled the sense that a promising career went irrevocably astray.

Life doesn’t seem so bleak when you talk to West, though. He’s engaging, hopeful, introspective and reflective. Now a father, his world has grown beyond the next game. It’s unclear if he will get to reprise his NBA role, but West appears to have gained an improved perspective regardless of whether that happens for him.


Is it hard to mesh your style of play in summer league, where everybody’s trying to show off?

Actually, it's not, because we don't have a consistent go-to guy, and therefore you have to use your team and your offense to create most of your offense. And collectively, we have to win games offensively and defensively. Somebody has to be from whatever position more of a creator, like a point forward or a point shooting guard. If my pass leads to a bucket, that's what all this is about.

I read the Slate article about all that you've been through. Would making the league again be an even bigger accomplishment than the first time you made it.

Yeah. Yeah. 'Cause, since, I mean, since I, I've pretty much taken care of my body over the years. I feel like I'm in the Jason Kidd, Derek Fisher boat, not as far as age just yet, but as far as can play eight more years. Those guys played 'til 38. I feel almost like a rookie again, and it feels great because you have a whole different perspective because my game done changed, introducing it all over again. It's fun for me. I'm more confident. So I'm just enjoying this, like I said. This time around will be better than last time around.

[+] EnlargeDelonte West
Dominic DiSaia for ESPNWest is trying to overcome past issues with taxes, bipolar disorder and more in eight NBA seasons.
What kind of different perspective have you gained?

I'm putting pieces together off of my complete game. I've been successful in this league being able to be a piece on a puzzle. And now I'm coming back. I'm giving teams the whole puzzle, and therefore I think I'll be a real asset.

Do you think with what you've added that you're better than you were on those Cleveland teams?

Yeah, definitely. You know, I'm confident in my ability, growth. All those things off the court. I preach this to young guys all the time. That translates on the court. How good was Joe Schmo All-Star when he first came out of college or high school, and look how good he is eight to 10 years later. He's a phenom now, but look at him then. Pulling up 3-pointers, everything, so, that's that age range where you go from a phenom and a super talent to a super player, and super players win championships.

Does LeBron returning to Cleveland evoke any nostalgia for you?

You know, Cleveland is still home for me. Cleveland is one of those cities. It's blue-collar, it's been through so much, and I can relate to all that. Anytime I been anywhere in the world, I ain't been to too many places, tell 'em I go through Cleveland. Clevelanders, you know, they just good people, man. And they deserve some greatness. And LeBron knows that and he's doing the right thing. It's great, man. It's great.

Has being a father changed your perspective immensely?

Well, you just can't make the same silly decisions. Everybody gets frustrated when a call don't go your way or something and you want somebody to know you're mad. See that's my thing -- I always wore my emotions on my sleeve. You just want someone to know I'm upset. Injustice! Didn't y'all see that?! But, as you get older and wiser, you learn everybody gets technical fouls. Last season I played, I might have had two techs the whole season. For me, if those little things like that are causing teams' second-guessing, then out the window. And that comes with growth and maturity.

[A few players congratulate West on his game.] It seems like you get a lot of love here.

I'm a team player, man. I think when I've been out there, even in the past, I want to see a smile on my face. And that's how you should compete. If you look back at the days when gladiators were athletes. People would probably chop somebody up, and then after winning, they put their sword down and have a cocktail or something, you know? So as a point guard I compete and battle, but I want to show the teams that I can compete with a smile too if that's a problem.

In Dallas, what didn't exactly work out? Why wasn't the fit ideal?

It was ideal. Obviously it had nothing to do with the team. I kind of, in the summer, put all my eggs in one basket. In my own thinking, this next contract was going to be a step up for me. But that's my own thinking then. Like, that was probably going to be that situation, which the organization explained to me if certain pieces fell into place, like Dwight Howard, or this guy or that guy. So, it was almost a rebuilding, and they had a lot of young guys. And at 29, 30, I just wasn't receiving that well. I was looking for more stability.

You know, [Mark] Cuban used to talk to me all the time, talk to me all the time, even afterward. He would call me, "Whatcha got going on? You still working hard?" And that's what's up. He was a mentor to me for a while even after I left Dallas with the whole Twitter thing, finances and tax situation. He'd go, "I know you're in a tough financial spot, but you can't focus on the contract. You should focus on basketball. He told me once or twice. The third time he was like, "Look dude, this is the direction we're going to go." So I understood that.

It seemed like you were misunderstood, and it contributed to this stigma that wasn't exactly fair. What are your thoughts on that now?

Life is not fair, and I'm so thankful and blessed for these last two years of my life. That's for real. The hardest thing about being, is when you set yourself up. And then it hurts you more when you set yourself up, know what I mean? If that situation forced me to take control, to grow up, to fight through, not accepting being bipolar and fighting through it and talking to the right people and making sure I am understood and I'm not the only man in the world that has to do that. People in all walks of life have to go to work and prove themselves every day. It helped me grow as a person and a man, so I'm very grateful for that. And sometimes you gotta learn by bumping your head and going through it, and that's what I did.

The back of the envelope guide to Las Vegas Summer League: The West

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
10:05
AM ET
By D.J. Foster
Special to ESPN.com
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Julius Randle, Dante ExumGetty ImagesWelcome to the NBA, rooks. High-profile picks Julius Randle and Dante Exum finally hit the pro stage.
There's something for everyone at Las Vegas Summer League. For all the prized rookies in this year’s draft class, it’s a chance to get their feet wet. For the prospects who haven’t found luck in the league yet, it’s an opportunity to jump-start a career. For others, it’s simply a shot at getting on the radar.

The following is our annual "back of the envelope" guide to the Las Vegas Summer League teams, highlighting some of the more promising and intriguing prospects who will take the floor. The West guide is below, and the East guide is here.


Dallas Mavericks


Gal Mekel: Perhaps it was a show of confidence in Mekel’s abilities that the Mavericks were willing to send both Jose Calderon and Shane Larkin to New York. Raymond Felton may be the worst projected starter at point guard in the league right now, so there’s a clear path to playing time for the Israeli point guard. A great summer league could go a long way.

Ricky Ledo: The mystery is no longer there, but the appeal still will be. Ledo came into Vegas last year without a minute of college or international playing time under his belt, but he’s showed glimpses of being a capable wing scorer. He plays with blinders on sometimes and can chuck a bit, but the talent is there.

Ivan Johnson: He’s the only player in Vegas with the distinction of being “banned forever” from the Korean Basketball League, but Johnson can really play despite some dustups over the years. In two seasons for the Atlanta Hawks, Johnson averaged a 15.1 PER and was solid on both ends. After playing in China last season, he’d make a nice bodyguard for Dirk Nowitzki off the bench.


Denver Nuggets


Quincy Miller: One play he’ll look like Kevin Durant, the next he’ll look like Austin Daye. Miller is a 6-foot-10 wing with guard skills and a sweet stroke from deep, but he’s a little too slow and a little too soft to really put it all to good use. You’ll fall in and out of love with him multiple times over the course of a game.

Gary Harris: He had one of the more surprising falls on draft night, but the Denver Nuggets were smart to snatch up a young 3-and-D wing for Arron Afflalo to mentor. Afflalo, on his second tour in Denver thanks to a pre-draft trade with Orlando, suffered a similar fate on draft night in 2007 despite a strong pedigree, but he turned himself into something much more with his great work ethic. Harris should take notes.

Erick Green: Last year’s second-round pick struggled a bit in Italy last season, and this is still one of the league’s deepest rosters. Green has a knack for creating space and finding his own shot, but with Harris and Miller needing to be fed and the Nuggets probably looking for a third point guard, he should focus more on distributing.


Golden State Warriors

Travis Bader: There have been a lot of great shooters in college basketball history, but Bader holds a spot above them all as the NCAA Division I leader in 3-pointers made, with 504. With shooting coming at a premium (here’s looking at you, Jodie Meeks) in free agency, smart teams may opt for a cheaper, younger specialist like Bader.

Nemanja Nedovic: Being dubbed the “European Derrick Rose” has been the highlight of Nedovic’s career thus far. He couldn’t find playing time under Mark Jackson last season, but with Steve Kerr taking over, Nedovic will get a clean slate and a chance to unleash some of the much heralded athleticism.

Rob Loe: After the Warriors missed out on acquiring Channing Frye and shored up the backcourt instead, the big man from Saint Louis might get a long look to fill the Warriors' need for a stretch big man with legitimate size. Although his percentages weren’t great in college, Loe’s mechanics are literally perfect when he parks himself on the 3-point line.


Houston Rockets


Nick Johnson: Most expected the Rockets to go with an international draft-and-stash candidate in this year's draft to avoid taking on salary, but Daryl Morey and company liked the Arizona guard enough to take the plunge. Early returns have been positive -- Johnson’s nasty throwdown in Orlando is the early favorite for the dunk of the summer.

Omar Oraby: Plenty of countries are represented in Vegas every year, but Oraby is looking to become the first player from Egypt to play in the NBA. The USC grad has size on his side (7-foot-2), but he’ll need to show he can protect the rim without fouling before warranting any serious consideration.

Isaiah Canaan: He got a little bit of burn with the Rockets last season, but Canaan was most impressive with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the 3-happy D-League affiliate of the big club. Canaan hit a whopping 3.7 3s per game on 38.7 percent shooting with that squad, and after teammate Troy Daniels temporarily saved Houston’s hide in the playoffs, Canaan could find a role.


Los Angeles Clippers


Delonte West: It’s no secret that Doc Rivers has an affinity for veterans and his former players, and West qualifies as both. Since 2010, West has worked for a furniture store, been arrested for carrying guns in a guitar case "Desperado" style, and has played in the D-League, China and the NBA in stints. This would be quite the career revival.

Keith Benson: The Clippers could probably stand to add some more depth in the frontcourt even after the signing of Spencer Hawes, and Benson might fill a need. After seeing what he did with DeAndre Jordan, a similar big man in terms of size and athleticism, Rivers may decide to take on another project big man with all the athletic tools and very little polish.

Jon Brockman: A summer-league tradition like no other. Brockman made his debut way back in 2009, and for years now he’s provided dogged offensive rebounding and physical play in the paint in this setting. The proceedings wouldn’t feel quite right without him here.


Los Angeles Lakers


Julius Randle: Randle will have a leg up on some of the other post prospects in town, as he’ll get a buffet of touches thanks to Kendall Marshall. The seventh overall pick should be able to put on a nice show for the always-present Lakers contingency as a magnet for the ball with superior motor and athleticism.

DeAndre Kane: If you tuned into an Iowa State game last season, it was tough to keep your eyes off Kane. His age (25) and lack of a true position kept him out of the draft, but Kane plays a very similar style to Lance Stephenson and can make his impact felt all over the court. He’s a serious sleeper.

Kendall Marshall: Great tweeter, better distributor. Marshall averaged 11 assists per 36 minutes last season for the Lakers, and while some of that is inflated by noted point guard whisperer Mike D’Antoni, Marshall also knocked in 39.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He’ll have questions to answer in a new system, but he has staying power.


Minnesota Timberwolves


Zach LaVine: Minnesota is just going to keep acquiring UCLA guys to try and placate Kevin Love, apparently, as LaVine is the third Bruin (Shabazz Muhammad, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) to join the roster in the last year. With a ridiculous 46-inch vertical leap and a stylish flair, the raw singman’s dunks should set the internet on fire. Unless there’s an up-and-comer out there named Putmeon LaYouTube, LaVine is probably the most appropriately named prospect we’ve ever had.

Shabazz Muhammad: The Las Vegas native returns for a second run at summer league, this time with a year of NBA experience under his belt. With a new coach in Flip Saunders and a possible youth movement taking place in Minnesota, Muhammad’s sturdy under-the-basket post scoring could be an asset. Question is, can he do anything else?

Gorgui Dieng: One of the lone bright spots in an otherwise lost season, Dieng burst onto the scene late and averaged 12.6 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes. Although he’s stuck behind Love and Nikola Pekovic for the time being, Dieng’s ability to play out of the high post and protect the rim puts him in pretty exclusive company among fellow big men.


New Orleans Pelicans


Josh Howard: Yes, that Josh Howard. At 34 years old, the former Dallas Mavericks forward is hoping to follow in Rasual Butler’s footsteps by performing well in summer league and landing another NBA contract. Injuries have ravaged his career, but given the need in New Orleans for a glue guy at small forward, Howard should get a fair shake if the body is willing.

Russ Smith: The lightning bug Louisville point guard should perform pretty well here, as he’s been blowing by elite opposing point guards for quite some time now. Unlike a few other guards in attendance, the frantic pace Smith played at with Louisville should transfer over nicely.

Patric Young: The Florida big man is a real grinder, and watching him lock horns with other big bodies in the frontcourt is always a treat. Young has some nice role-player potential behind Anthony Davis and Omer Asik in New Orleans, even if he’s limited offensively.


Phoenix Suns


T.J. Warren: NC State gave him all the possessions he could handle, but it’s hard to say how well Warren’s high-usage attack will translate to the next level. He’s a throwback scorer who lives primarily off the in-between stuff like floaters and below-the-rim finishes, but can he survive as an efficient offensive option without a more reliable jumper and better range?

Alex Len: It’s easy to forget that Phoenix battled for a playoff spot without the fifth pick of the 2013 draft involved, but there’s still hope that Len will become the skilled, mobile rim protector the Suns need in the middle. The fight for playing time with Miles Plumlee, who isn’t on the summer league roster, starts right now.

Tyler Ennis: Canada can trot out a pretty dangerous Olympic team all of a sudden, can’t it? Ennis was a somewhat surprising pick since Phoenix has Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe to run the point, but he has the kind of distributing ability and shake off the dribble that could make him a dangerous player down the line. The point guard rich look like they got richer.


Portland Trail Blazers


C.J. McCollum: If McCollum can stay healthy, it’s not hard to imagine him winning a sixth man of the year award in the near future. At the very least he fits the typical profile - a combo guard with the ability to shoot the lights out and create for himself off the dribble. He could be the answer to Portland’s bench woes offensively.

Thomas Robinson: It feels like Robinson should have already moved on from playing in the summer league since he’s bounced around so much, but the fifth pick in the 2012 draft is still just 23 years old and raw enough to justify another appearance. He’s an elite rebounder, but he needs to bring something else to the table to earn real minutes.

Meyers Leonard: Do you trust recently signed big man Chris Kaman to stay healthy for a full season? Me neither. At some point in the near future, Leonard is going to need to soak up minutes at the 5 for a team with legitimate playoff potential. With that in mind, it would be nice if he didn’t float in the background again this summer.


Sacramento Kings


Ben McLemore: It’s been a while since an otherwise legitimate prospect has been crippled by tunnel vision this severe. Last year’s seventh overall pick seems to be lacking a basic feel for his surroundings, but he’s still trouble in transition when he can make straight line drives to the rim. If the jumper starts falling, there’s some 3-and-D potential here.

Nik Stauskas: The problem in Sacramento, as it always seems to be, is that there might not be enough distributors on the roster. We know Stauskas can shoot and shake and bake, but Sacramento may need him to take on more of a creating role, especially if Darren Collison: Starting Point Guard, ends up being a real thing.

Sim Bhullar: Vegas serves as a home for plenty of P.O.U.S (players of unusual size) this time of year, and New Mexico State big man Bhullar is the biggest of them all. Don’t adjust your screen -- Bhullar is really 7-foot-5 and 360 pounds, and he’s a serious threat to crush a cameraman under the basket at some point. If he’s going down, I’m yelling timber. Also, I’m so sorry.


San Antonio Spurs


Kyle Anderson: How did the rest of the league let this happen? Allowing a young Boris Diaw clone to learn from the real Boris Diaw could have serious consequences for the rest of the league down the line. Yes, Anderson is slower than molasses, but his playmaking, size, ballhandling and intelligence are top notch. This is how the Spurs stay the Spurs.

Deshaun Thomas: He can get buckets in a hurry. It’s a little surprising that Thomas hasn’t found a C.J. Miles-type role for an NBA team yet, but at 22 years old, there’s still plenty of time for that to happen. San Antonio’s roster is understandably crowded, but this guy is too good offensively to ignore for much longer.

Vander Blue: Marquette has a history of pumping out pesky perimeter defenders, and Blue certainly qualifies. If his 3-point stroke finally starts to cooperate, Blue could hold down a steady roster spot. For teams that miss out on Kent Bazemore in free agency, Blue should be an option worth considering if his mechanics are cleaned up.


Utah Jazz


Dante Exum: No more chopped up footage from four years ago -- we’re finally getting the real thing. The Australian guard and fifth overall pick in this year’s draft certainly appears to have all the natural tools you love to have from a lead guard, and he could take on a role in the same vein as someone like Brandon Roy once occupied. That kind of star power is exactly what a franchise like Utah needs.

Trey Burke: How’s the potential backcourt of the future going to co-exist? On paper it seems like a good fit, as both Burke and Exum can swing the ball side-to-side and attack against recovering defenses. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship if the two play off each other instead of simply taking turns, which is always tempting in these types of games.

Rudy Gobert: After exploding onto the scene last season in Orlando Summer League by showing surprising mobility, good hands and natural shotblocking ability, it’s easy to dream on what Gobert might look like with a little more seasoning. Big men typically develop a little slower, but here’s hoping he gets unleashed yet again in the Jazz’s first ever summer-league appearance in Las Vegas.

D.J. Foster is an NBA contributor for ESPN.com, ClipperBlog and others. Follow him, @fosterdj.

Tim Duncan willing to pay the price for titles

July, 4, 2014
Jul 4
9:30
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Bryant/DuncanNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhile Kobe Bryant keeps cashing massive checks, Tim Duncan is using salary to "buy" more rings.
Four days after lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the fifth time, Tim Duncan quietly opted in to make a team-friendly $10,361,446 next season. Which reminds us: Wait, Tim Duncan made roughly three times less than Kobe Bryant did last season? How could this happen?

The answer to the question of how can Duncan make so much less than Bryant while being more valuable these days is, paradoxically, “Because Duncan earned it.” After he garnered more than $200 million over the course of an illustrious career, Timmy splurged on his own team. Anyone who’s arguing that the Spurs are “built, not bought” ignores how the buying is part of the building. Duncan didn’t “sacrifice” for his squad so much as he used his money the way he wanted.

Duncan didn’t just help buy the Spurs a few more title chances, though. He purchased pressure on other stars around the league, stars who might hear calls to “pull a Duncan” for the good of the team. You can almost hear fans and media chiding, “Why can’t you be more like Duncan?” the way a parent might remind an imperfect son of his perfect older brother.

We’re already seeing this in Miami, where Dwyane Wade’s biggest supporters would urge him to conspire against his bank account. Because of a CBA designed to kill super-teams, big-money players have greater incentive to consider philanthropy as a means to legacy.

With that in mind, the Heat and Wade stand at a crossroads. LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade have opted out of their contracts after a Finals in which “Big Three plus scraps” certainly wasn’t up to the task. The first two could recoup their money on the open market, but Wade almost certainly cannot. At age 32, he’s staring down either the Kobe path or the Duncan path. It remains to be seen if he opts for the superstar money that hinders his team, or elects to conserve his body and his team’s cap space the way Duncan has. What Wade chooses might say a lot about how he thinks about himself in relation to his franchise.

The contracts Duncan and Bryant took on the “back nine” of their careers spoke to what made them great in their primes. Duncan was celebrated as the selfless teammate, whose mastery of his craft was viewed as more utilitarian (“fundamental”) than artistic. He is heralded as a man who wins for the sake of winning, as though you would learn some ineffable truth of how a win happens if only you could read his mind. The below-market deal is illustrative of how Duncan was willing to subsume for victory.

Bryant was celebrated for being a brilliant “alpha dog” who won on his own terms. Perhaps Kobe would never have become Kobe if he was so willing to sacrifice. After Shaquille O’Neal left, Kobe fandom replaced some of what had been fandom for a title contender in Los Angeles. The Lakers were hopeless, but entertainment and drama could be found in whether Bryant put together a streak of 50-point scoring performances.

Then the Lakers got Pau Gasol, won two titles, and Bryant’s status reached another echelon. Though succeeding with his team, “The Mamba” developed a cult of personality that was based on self as opposed to team. Bryant’s brand of machismo was about embracing the big shot and consuming the spotlight that came with that responsibility. This isn’t to say Bryant was a bad teammate -- just that a Lakers fan might wear a shirt showing Kobe’s five rings as though his accomplishment superseded the squad’s.

Eventually, Bryant’s body betrayed his brand of triumphant individualism. The Achilles tear took him down, and took down the Lakers. Perhaps his massive post-injury contract can be rationalized as paying a star for past good works -- cue Jurgen’s disapproving glare -- but Bryant had already been well-compensated in his time with the Lakers. The cap-killing extension looked more like a franchise eating itself because it ceased knowing how to be anything other than a vehicle for its star’s fame.

It’s a testament to the power of Bryant’s play and status that the Lakers bid against their own future in paying homage. It’s also a testament to how denial can be corrosive to goals. The Lakers (and Bryant) suffered an inability to accept that Bryant’s body couldn’t cash the checks his legend kept writing. In contrast, the Spurs (and Duncan) have long accepted that Duncan can’t keep functioning as the main reason for success, that his minutes need lessening, that his roster needs furnishing. An acceptance of reality, combined with Duncan’s willingness to play the part of someone who wins at his own literal expense, extended San Antonio’s title window.

With these two examples before them, can the Heat and Wade accept reality? Even if Wade does the hard work of accepting his limitations, there’s no guarantee he blesses that admission by giving up millions. Being a Duncan is hard, expensive work.

Joel Embiid fits Lakers' needs

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
8:14
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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Joel Embiid is shaping up as the latest incarnation in the storied lineage of Los Angeles Lakers centers. He’s got the back problems of Dwight Howard and the foot problems of Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol.

That doesn’t mean the Lakers should not take him if the two screws implanted into the navicular bone in his right foot Friday scare away enough teams to leave Embiid available at the No. 7 pick. At the moment he’s a better fit for them than any other team in the draft’s top 10.

With Kobe Bryant under contract for two high-cost seasons, the Lakers don’t need to a pick for the long term. They need to extract as much as they can from what’s left of Bryant’s career. With that mentality, it wouldn’t be as devastating to them if Embiid’s career is cut short by injuries. Even one or two high-level seasons would suffice. It’s the same risk they took when they brought in Howard fresh off back surgery in 2012; they shouldn’t get shy because it didn’t pay off.

Besides, the chances of getting a long-term franchise cornerstone at No. 7 are slim. None of the seventh picks from 2003 to 2008 has stayed with his team for the duration of his career. (Two of them, Kirk Hinrich and Corey Brewer, are back with their original teams after going elsewhere).

The long-term success of the Lakers isn’t strictly dependent on striking gold in the draft. They’ve shown they are capable of landing major free agents or making trades with confidence that players will re-sign with them. Hearing Julius Randle glow about the mystique of the Lakers and his admiration for Kobe after his workout in L.A. this week served as a reminder that the Lakers still resonate with the up-and-coming generation of players. They also have the financial means to go into the luxury tax to assemble and maintain their roster.

No other team with high draft picks has that fallback. They all need their picks in this deeper-than-normal draft to click if they’re going to have success.

The Lakers’ fan base wouldn’t freak out if they picked Embiid. While O’Neal had that problematic big toe and Gasol has dealt with plantar fasciitis, the Lakers don’t have the star-crossed injury history of say, Portland, with its litany of limping big men from Bill Walton to Sam Bowie to Greg Oden that would immediately make Laker fans fear for the worst.

Actually, Walton’s Portland years -- one great season, four injury-plagued ones -- would be more than enough for the Lakers from the No. 7 spot. Walton played more than 58 games in a season only once for the Trail Blazers, but that once was enough to get him a Most Valuable Player award, a championship and a cherished spot in the hearts of all Blazers fans. That might be more than Embiid fulfilling his potential, Bryant returning to 80 percent of his capacity and a key free agent could accomplish for the Lakers ... but at least Embiid could entice with possibilities.

There’s no player in this draft who’s guaranteed to make his team into an annual championship contender. Among the players the Lakers have brought in for workouts this week were Randle, Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, Nik Stauskas and Elfrid Payton, who is rocketing up the mock draft lists and impressed the Lakers in his session Friday. All could be good, none has the potential of Embiid.

If the Lakers take Embiid and it doesn’t work out, there won’t be the pervading sense of “What if?” that haunts the Trail Blazers with Oden and Kevin Durant. For the Lakers, it’s always, “What’s next?”

Gift of Love: 29 trades for 29 teams

May, 21, 2014
May 21
11:07
AM ET
Harper By Zach Harper
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Kevin LoveBrad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports
The end is nigh. Or so it seems. Reports about Kevin Love’s uncertain future with the Minnesota Timberwolves are coming out left and right. Every team in the league is positioning itself to capture the star power on the market right now.

With the draft a little more than a month away, it would behoove the Timberwolves to maximize the trade market now while cap flexibility, draft picks and crushed lottery night dreams are fresh in the minds of the potential suitors.

The Wolves don’t have the upper hand in this situation, but they do have the ability to leverage ravenous front offices against one another and create a trade-market bidding war. As team president Flip Saunders and owner Glen Taylor face a gut-check moment of whether to risk Love leaving for nothing in summer 2015, here are the deals I would blow up their phones with if I were in charge of one of the 29 teams in the league.


Atlanta Hawks


The deal: Trade Machine

Hawks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroder, the rights to Lucas Nogueira, No. 15 pick in 2014

This is a big haul for the Hawks to give up, with three rotation guys plus the pick going to Minnesota. But pairing Love and Al Horford together in Mike Budenholzer’s offense would be an alien invasion without Bill Pullman and Will Smith to fight it off. For the Wolves, Millsap is a nice option you can win with now and flip if he isn’t happy; Schroder is the backup point guard they crave; and Nogueira would give the Wolves a tandem with Gorgui Dieng that makes Nikola Pekovic and his contract expendable.


Boston Celtics


The deal: Trade Machine

Celtics receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Phil Pressey, Vitor Faverani, Nos. 6 and 17 picks in 2014, Celtics’ first-round pick in 2016

Here, the Wolves are basically getting the picks and then a bunch of cap filler and former first-rounders. There’s no reason to pretend Olynyk and Sullinger would be pieces for the Wolves at all. Being a Wolves fan since they've come into the NBA, I am pretty good at recognizing overvalued first-round picks who won’t be as good as you hope they are. This is about the picks, and with Nos. 6, 13 and 17 in this draft, they could load up or move up.


Brooklyn Nets

The deal: Trade Machine

Nets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: The 2003 Kevin Garnett

Look, I don’t know how owner Mikhail Prokhorov got his hands on a time machine, either, but billionaires have access to things we don’t. Let’s just take advantage of the opportunity to grab 2003 Kevin Garnett and get this team back into the playoffs.


Charlotte Hornets


The deal: Trade Machine

Hornets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Gary Neal, Nos. 9 and 24 picks in 2014

The Wolves never got to truly test out the Al Jefferson-Love big man tandem because Love wasn’t that great yet and Jefferson hurt his knee. They get a redo in Charlotte in this scenario, and with coach Steve Clifford’s defensive stylings, it could actually work.

Wolves would get a former No. 2 pick with potential; Zeller, whom they were enamored with before last year’s draft; and two first-round picks. The Pistons conceding the No. 9 pick to the Bobcats makes this a very attractive deal.


Chicago Bulls


The deal: Trade Machine

Bulls receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, the rights to Nikola Mirotic, Ronnie Brewer, Nos. 16 and 19 picks in 2014

Of the most realistic trade scenarios for the Wolves in unloading Love for assets, cap relief and picks, this is probably the best move they could make, unless Phoenix is willing to be bold. You could also swap out Boozer for Taj Gibson, but his long-term money isn’t ideal for a rebuilding team. The Wolves could flip him to a contender later. The Bulls would be giving up a lot, but a big three of Joakim Noah, Love and Derrick Rose (assuming he's healthy) is an amazing way to battle whatever the Heat end up being after this season.


Cleveland Cavaliers


The deal: Trade Machine

Cavaliers receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Alonzo Gee, No. 1 pick in 2014

Why would the Cavaliers possibly trade the No. 1 pick in a loaded class, plus three rotation players, for Love? Because they seem to have a pipe dream of bringing LeBron James back to Cleveland this summer and this is the way to do it. It’s not stockpiling a bunch of young role players for James to play alongside. He wants to play with stars, and having Love and Kyrie Irving in tow would go a long way.


Dallas Mavericks


Mavericks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: 2011 NBA championship banner and one free pass for a business idea on “Shark Tank”

I’ve always had a problem with teams hanging up “division title” banners in an arena because it seems like a lower-level franchise thing to do. Considering the Wolves are about to lose their best player and potentially miss the playoffs for an 11th straight season, it’s safe to consider them on that lower level right now.

It would be nice to take down the 2003-04 division title banner and replace it with a championship banner. And the extra revenue from getting a business idea funded through “Shark Tank” could give this organization a little extra money to play around with during the next few years. The Wolves are renovating their arena, so they could use the cash.


Denver Nuggets


The deal: Trade Machine

Nuggets receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Darrell Arthur, Randy Foye, No. 11 pick in 2014

Coach Brian Shaw gets his coveted big-time power forward and a nice offensive complement to Ty Lawson in the backcourt. While Martin isn't even close to being a defender, he at least has some size to utilize on offense.

The Wolves get a lot of quality players and a couple of veterans (Arthur and Foye) they can flip. They could even add a lottery pick here in this draft, although this sort of feels like a lot in return. Oh, who cares? The Wolves get to be greedy here.


Detroit Pistons


Pistons receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Stan Van Gundy

I don't want your horrible Josh Smith contract and shot selection that makes most government agencies look like well-oiled machines. I don’t want an improbable sign-and-trade deal with Greg Monroe. I don’t want any of the young players. I don’t even want the pick. I want SVG in all of his coaching glory and I’m willing to relinquish this fake GM power to him when the trade is completed. I’m going full-on Veruca Salt on this one. I want Stan Van Gundy to coach the Wolves and I want it now!


Golden State Warriors


The deal: Trade Machine

Warriors receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: David Lee, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, right to swap picks in 2015 and 2016

I don’t actually think this is a good trade, but it allows me to bring up a point. I get the mindset of wanting to maximize the value you receive in a trade versus what you’re sending out. But there are Warriors fans worried about giving up Thompson and Barnes in a deal for Love, while ridding themselves of Lee’s contract. Back when the Clippers were trading for Chris Paul, there were fans and writers who thought it was a bad idea to include Eric Gordon. Think about that now. Sometimes it can get out of hand for players who probably won’t be All-Stars.


Houston Rockets


The deal: Trade Machine

Rockets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Jeremy Lin, Donatas Motiejunas, Chandler Parsons, Jordan Hamilton, first-round picks in 2015 and 2017

This is an incredibly tricky situation because while the Rockets have lots of assets to move, the inclusion of Parsons makes the deal really difficult. The Wolves would need to pick up his team option for next season, but that means he’s an unrestricted free agent in 2015. How likely is it that he will want to stay in Minnesota?

Lin’s contract will cost more than owner Glen Taylor wants to pay for a non-winning team. Motiejunas would be the best prospect in the deal and you’re taking late first-round picks in the future. Can we just forget this deal and ask Hakeem Olajuwon to be an adviser to the Wolves instead?


Indiana Pacers


The deal: Trade Machine

Pacers receive: Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic
Wolves receive: Roy Hibbert, David West

I want to see just how good of a coach Frank Vogel is. The Wolves were 29th in defending the restricted area this season, and I would guess the only reason they weren’t the worst is because of Dieng’s late-season rim defense. The Pacers were the best at defending the rim this season. Can Vogel keep that defensive prowess with these non-shot-blockers? Can the Wolves defend the rim with these two big men? These two teams don’t match up at all in the trade department, so we might as well experiment.


Los Angeles Clippers


The deal: Trade Machine

Clippers receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford

I don’t know why the Clippers would ever do this trade, but it’s unfair for other fan bases to have all of the fun and none of the depression. Griffin gets to receive alley-oop passes from Ricky Rubio while Crawford dazzles the media members with his dribbling and charm.

The Clippers get another shooter to stretch the floor to allow DeAndre Jordan to further develop. Martin wouldn’t exactly add anything to what the Clippers do now, but again, I’m sick of all the depression in these scenarios, so just take one for the team, please.


Los Angeles Lakers


The deal: Trade Machine

Lakers receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Steve Nash, Robert Sacre, Nick Young, MarShon Brooks, No. 7 pick in 2014, future first-round pick, Flip Saunders gets a statue outside Staples Center, Minneapolis Lakers’ title banners

In this scenario, I suffered a head injury when I tried to pull off one of those 360 layups Swaggy P loves to do so much and I fell into the celebrating elbows of Sacre. It left me a little woozy, but I think I came up with a good deal to finally get Love to Los Angeles. Nash's deal is expiring, Sacre and Ronny Turiaf form the greatest bench-cheering duo ever, Young gets to teach me that layup and Brooks is cap filler. Those Minneapolis Lakers banners will look great at Target Center, too.


Memphis Grizzlies


The deal: Trade Machine

Grizzlies receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Zach Randolph, James Johnson, Jon Leuer, Jamaal Franklin, first-round pick in 2017

This does one thing that’s pretty cool: It gives a Grizzlies team that struggled to score in the half court two very good half-court scorers. They lose some toughness but they can actually round out their overall game quite a bit. For the Wolves, it gives them the potential for a Pekovic-Randolph-Johnson frontcourt, which, if Randolph opts in this summer, will protect Minnesota when the zombie apocalypse happens. Nobody is taking out that frontcourt.


Miami Heat


The deal: Trade Machine

Heat receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Chris Bosh, Norris Cole, right to swap first-round picks in 2016 and 2018

The Wolves are torn between a full-on rebuild (try selling that to the fans again during this decade-long playoff drought) and trying to still find a way to sneak into the playoffs. Granted, Bosh has to agree to this deal by not opting out of his contract this summer, but the Wolves would at least remain hyper-competitive on the playoff bubble. They’d also grab a backup point guard who isn’t as erratic as the incumbent, J.J. Barea.

The Heat get younger and give LeBron the chance to really have a great second scorer with him in his next deal in Miami.


Milwaukee Bucks


The deal: Trade Machine

Bucks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo, No. 2 pick in 2014, Wisconsin has to pretend the Vikings are the best team in the league

Sure, Sanders has the potential to be a nice defender in this league for a long time, Mayo would be a possible cap-relief trade chip in a year and the No. 2 pick, whoever it ends up being, could be a major star in this league. But the win here for Minnesota is Wisconsin having to pretend the Vikings are the best. A fan base that was 27th in attendance in the NBA and 13th in attendance in the NFL doesn't really care how they make out in any Love deal. They just want the football win. Vikings fans aren't used to getting a lot of those.


New Orleans Pelicans


The deal: Trade Machine

Pelicans receive: Kevin Love, Chase Budinger
Wolves receive: Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon

Sure, you guys are laughing at me and how ridiculous this is, but in my head the deal has been made and I’m doing a little dance of celebration. Have your laughter, and I’ll have my delusional mind, and never the twain shall meet.


New York Knicks


The deal: Trade Machine

Knicks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: [processing ...]

The Knicks gave up a first-round pick to get Andrea Bargnani. Comparable value means they’d have to give up the entire Wall Street district for Love. I can’t even pretend there is a combination here that works for the Wolves. Maybe they could do a double sign-and-trade and swap Love for Carmelo Anthony? Someone ask cap guru Larry Coon if this is allowed. Can we get a reality show just recording La La’s face when Melo has to tell her they’re moving to Minneapolis?


Oklahoma City Thunder


The deal: Trade Machine

Thunder receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Serge Ibaka, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Hasheem Thabeet, Mavericks’ first-round pick in 2014, Thunder’s first-round pick in 2017

I’m not going to be unrealistic and pretend Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook are in play here, but there’s no reason the Wolves can’t ask for Ibaka, while also unloading Martin’s deal (three years, $20 million left) and picking up young talent in Lamb and Jones, a first-round pick this year and an unprotected pick in 2017. Why 2017? Let’s pretend this Thunder thing doesn’t work out and Love and Durant both leave in 2016. In this scenario, the Wolves position themselves to take advantage of a team falling apart. It’s like what every team does to Minnesota every single time it trades a draft pick.


Orlando Magic


The deal: Trade Machine

Magic receive: Kevin Love, No. 13 pick in 2014
Wolves receive: Victor Oladipo, Andrew Nicholson, Jameer Nelson, No. 4 pick in 2014

I recognize that the Wolves getting the No. 2 pick from last year’s draft plus the No. 4 pick in this draft seems like a lot, but Love is a lot better than Oladipo and it’s not all that close. Even if Oladipo maximizes his potential, he’s probably not reaching Love’s status. Flip was enamored with Oladipo heading into the 2013 draft and would probably be willing to swap firsts with the Magic this year in order to complete this trade.


Philadelphia 76ers


The deal: Trade Machine

76ers receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Thaddeus Young, Jason Richardson, Nos. 3 and 10 picks in 2014

The Wolves get a young asset, cap relief and two lottery picks in this draft in exchange for Love and getting rid of Martin’s deal. It sounds like the Sixers are giving up a lot here, but they have assets to spare. You’re teaming Love with a defensive-minded center in Nerlens Noel and a pass-first point guard in Michael Carter-Williams. Plus, the Sixers still have room to add another major player.


Phoenix Suns


The deal: Trade Machine

Suns receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Eric Bledsoe, Timberwolves' first-round pick in 2015

This is the dream scenario. The Wolves would have to convince Bledsoe to want to play in Minnesota, and then execute a sign-and-trade. Most likely, they’d have to max out Bledsoe in the process. The Suns do it because of the knee concern for Bledsoe, and Love is a much better player who fits coach Jeff Hornacek’s style of play. Getting their top-12 protected pick back for dumping Wes Johnson in Phoenix helps, too. It’s a risk by the Suns and a concession by the Wolves, but this is the “fingers crossed” scenario.


Portland Trail Blazers


The deal: Trade Machine

Trail Blazers receive: Kevin Love, medium-quality bike lanes from Minneapolis
Wolves receive: LaMarcus Aldridge, second-best bike lanes from Portland

This needs to happen and it doesn’t have anything to do with basketball. I just want to see both fan bases reverse course on the vitriol thrown each other’s way when discussing which power forward is better. The Blazers fans would have to embrace Love as the top PF while the Wolves fans pretend they never meant the things they said about Aldridge’s rebounding.

The bike lane aspect of this trade would really help Portland take back its title as top cycling city in the country.


Sacramento Kings


The deal: Trade Machine

Kings receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Williams, Jason Terry

This one doesn't even involve a draft pick because Cousins has so much potential. The Kings can take a big man with the No. 8 pick this year and pair him next to Love. Martin returns to Sacramento and doesn't have Tyreke Evans to hog the ball and make him want to get out of town. Terry is salary-cap relief for the Wolves, and they can to try a do-over with Williams. This trade can’t happen until after July 1, so that and reality are the only two hang-ups right now.


San Antonio Spurs


Spurs receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Gregg Popovich

This works out perfectly in a couple of ways. Let’s say the Spurs win the title this year and we see Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili ride off into the sunset. Love would immediately be the replacement for Duncan and give the Spurs a bridge from this era into the next successful one.

For the Wolves, I don’t even want to subject Popovich to coaching the team. He should just be a consultant for a month and let the organization know all of the awful ways in which they do things and the way the Spurs “would never consider something like this.” He’d essentially be The Wolf in "Pulp Fiction" for Minnesota.


Toronto Raptors


The deal: Trade Machine

Raptors receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, John Salmons, No. 20 pick in 2014, Knicks’ first-round pick in 2016

It would leave the Raptors searching for a big man to protect the paint, but in today’s NBA, you could get away with a Love-Amir Johnson frontcourt against a lot of teams. The Wolves get the young assets they crave, the draft picks they need and the cap relief necessary to keep their options open. They’d have to move Pekovic next, and they don’t get rid of Martin's contract in this scenario, but it’s a good start to the rebuilding plan. This might be a lot for the Raptors to give up, but general manager Masai Ujiri can just fleece the next four trades he makes and even it all out.


Utah Jazz


The deal: Trade Machine

Jazz receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Derrick Favors, Jeremy Evans, John Lucas III, Rudy Gobert, No. 5 pick in 2014

Requesting the Jazz’s top big man and the fifth pick is asking Utah to do the Wolves quite the ... Favor(s) ... you know? No? Wait, where are you guys going? I still have one more team to poach players from!


Washington Wizards


The deal: Trade Machine

Wizards receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Bradley Beal, Nene

This would be an incredibly tough decision for the Wizards to make. They have one of the best young shooting guards in the NBA, and pairing him with John Wall would produce an awesome tandem for a decade. And yet, they could upgrade for Love while still keeping a scorer at the shooting guard position. In the process, they’d rid themselves of the long-term money owed to Nene. They would owe long-term money to Martin, though.

It’s not an ideal scenario in a few ways, but you’d be making this team a big threat. Plus, it would give coach Randy Wittman a chance to apologize for telling a young Love that he should abandon the 3-point shot.

Why Mike D'Antoni ditched the Lakers

May, 1, 2014
May 1
1:41
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Amin Elhassan on what went wrong in L.A. and what's next for Mike D'Antoni.

video

Pau Gasol's final scene in Lakerland?

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
1:39
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
Archive
LOS ANGELES -- Pau Gasol looked out onto the court, where the team from his past played the team of his present, then looked up to the scoreboard, where the clock ticked down toward the start of his future.

The Memphis Grizzlies, Gasol’s team from draft night in 2001 until the 2008 trade that sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers, were finalizing the Lakers’ 55th loss of the season. Same old story for the Lakers: hang tight for a half, lose by double digits. And a frustratingly frequent tale for Gasol: sidelined by injury, missing his 20th game and counting, with a bout of vertigo guaranteed to keep him sidelined for the Lakers’ two remaining games on the road.

He’ll be a free agent this summer, which means this might have been his last home game at Staples Center. It certainly meant he felt the emotional impact. As the game drew to a close he reached toward the seat to his right and tapped teammate Jordan Farmar’s leg to signal that it was time for them to leave. Except Gasol wasn’t really ready to leave. He congratulated his brother, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, then playfully shoved Marc away so he wouldn’t sweat on Pau’s nice, movie-ticket-taker- burgundy red jacket. He moved on to other players and coaches, stopped to talk to a couple of fans, then chatted with courtside regulars Jimmy Goldstein and Dyan Cannon.
[+] EnlargeMarc Gasol
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsMarc and Pau Gasol, the brothers who were traded for each other in 2008, greet each other Sunday.

He stopped and signed autographs for fans on the other side of the courtside seats. He leaned in behind a woman who took a selfie with her phone. He entered the tunnel and accommodated more fans who reached through the rails to have him sign programs, hats, tickets and -- just when he was ready to cut things off -- a fan who dangled a No. 16 Gasol golden Lakers jersey.

Finally he said no mas.

“I gotta go in,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He blew the fans a kiss with both hands, bowed and moved on to the Lakers' locker room.

“I always appreciate the fans,” Gasol said. “You never know. The last couple years when I walked out of this building it’s been emotional. This year it’s been a little bit different because we haven’t been successful as a team, we had a lot of injuries, I haven’t been able to finish the season playing. So I kind of had it more in my mind.

“The last couple of years I didn’t know if I was going to be back. This year with even more reason, because now I’m a free agent. It’s just a way of me appreciating everyone and our fans.”

The fans showed their appreciation, giving him a warm cheer when he was showed on the scoreboard video screen late in the game. Will the Lakers do anything similar -- something along the lines of the golden parachute they granted Kobe Bryant? The Kobe contract might actually preclude a Gasol gift by eating up too much salary cap room. Gasol can’t expect to match the $19 million he made this season; he might get about half of that, from what some general managers say. It's also possible that the Lakers could sign him to a short deal that would give them the possibility of using him as a trade asset next season.

But a multi-year contract would alter any Lakers plans to make a big splash in the 2015 free agent market -- or even to bring in the additional pieces the Lakers would need around Bryant and Gasol.

That’s why Sunday was the night for sentiment. Come July 1 it will be all business.

“You’ve got to put heart and emotions aside a little bit and think what’s going to be the best position for me to succeed, not just individually but collectively,” Gasol said. “And hopefully help put myself in a position where I can win a championship. That will be the goal. Where can I win and where can I be a key piece to help a team win, whether it’s here or another team? I don’t know exactly what’s going to be the structure or the roster [with the Lakers], so there’s going to be a lot of question marks here. But I’m open to listen. I’m a good listener. I will listen to what’s offered.”

Then there’s the possibility of playing with his brother in Memphis.

“It’s appealing,” Gasol said. “We have a lof of fun always in the summers [playing together with the Spanish national team]. But I don’t know if it’s going to be completely 100 percent up to me, because there’s going to be a lot of teams that are going to be probably limited or conditioned to a trade, and the Lakers will probably have some say in that. We’ll see. It’ll be an interesting process. I don’t know if the Grizzlies are one of the teams that are most interested.

“I’d love to play with Kobe more, because he’s a friend, he’s a winner and he’s a guy that I’ve been through a lot and won championships with. I would love to play with my brother, but you can’t have everything. Just try to think where is the best position for me to succeed collectively and individually.”

Time passes so quickly in the NBA, turning from ally to enemy. Gasol made the Lakers championships contenders when he arrived in February of 2008, and they were on their way to three consecutive NBA Finals. In April of 2014, the only player in uniform who was around for that heyday was Farmar. It’s no accident that he was sitting next to Gasol.

“[The bond is] even sweeter for us because we lost one [NBA Finals] first,” Farmar said. “ We got all the way there, we lost, and then we learned as a group and came back to win back-to-backs. So we’re a little closer. It’s a little more special. It’s experiences you can’t really teach. You just have to go through it and know what it takes. It’s hard to pass that knowledge on to young guys. There’s just no way they can understand the dynamics of a championship team unless you’re on that caliber of a team.”

You can see why playing for another team consisting primarily of those young players wouldn’t appeal to Gasol at age 33. You also can see how a 33-year-old who has missed 53 games over the past two seasons with injuries stretching literally from his feet (plantar fasciitis) to his head (vertigo) might not have GMs filling his voicemail inbox this summer. But he’s still an experienced big man who averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds this season.

“In this league, no one person can do it by themselves,” Farmar said. “You need to put a team together of guys that understand the importance of winning,
that are committed to it and fit well together. I think that’s what it comes down to. The front office knows that. I think Pau, whether it’s here or someplace else, will be on a team like that.”

For the past three seasons we’ve wondered if the Lakers would send him someplace else before the trade deadline. Now it could be of his own volition. That’s why this wasn’t just another night in Staples Center, the building where the two most recent Lakers championship banners hang as a result of his handiwork.

Nice Guy Pau Gasol

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
10:50
AM ET
Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
Archive
Pau Gasol AP Photo/Damian DovarganesPau Gasol's tenure in L.A. appears all but over. Will we remember much beyond the cheery tweets?
Nobody lives in a perfect world, but Pau Gasol’s Twitter account sure tries to. The “social” sector of the Interwebs can be twisted fairy tale, a day-to-day life inhabited by trolls and court jesters. But virtually every day Gasol gallantly blasts out 140 characters of sunshine, both in Spanish and in English, with the preciousness of texts from mom:

• "Tonight against the Orlando Magic. We're ready to compete at our best effort and rack up a victory on our home floor! #GoLakers"

• "Today is #WorldWaterDay. Let's all take care of this vital natural resource for all of us."

• "The new trailer of the 4th season of @GameOfThrones is already out! Not long now for the season’s release! http://on.fb.me/1fFXrHK "

And that’s just a sampling from one week in March.

Gasol is one of the nice guys. All of his on-court kvetching amounts to nothing more than a rubbed head or two. He credits Magic Johnson's HIV diagnosis for inspiring him to become a doctor. In his “Lakers profile” -- one of the midgame entertainment reels broadcast on the Staples Center big board, in which guys like Nick Young talk about things like “spaghetti cake” -- Gasol describes himself in one word as “multifaceted.” Most superstar athletes become conditioned to look right through people; Kobe Bryant, for example, strides with purpose as if Aloe Blacc is his internal monologue. Gasol remains observant. On a recent trip to Staples Center my eyes happened to cross paths with Gasol’s, and to my surprise, he smiled back at me, a total stranger sort of creepily gawking at him. Dude is nice.

We yearn for any morsel of information on these guys’ personal lives, especially when the subject is something of an enigma uninterested in opening up. When some odd detail does trickle out, it tends to serve mostly as fodder to further the myth we’ve pieced together in our heads. Rajon Rondo is this great checkers player? He's a mad genius!

There’s no mystery to Gasol. He’s the oversharing Facebook friend you can’t bring yourself to cut out, posting pictures of that darling landscape and recommending a new goodread whether you like it or not. Gasol is willing to give up more of himself than virtually any other NBA player of his caliber, and that accessibility tramples all over the whole superstar-worshipping dynamic. It’s hard to create a legend around someone so human. And that’s a large part of what’s making it so hard to muster up anything beyond indifference as Gasol approaches what figures to be the end of his six-plus years with the Lakers.

Gasol is back to playing above-average ball amid the Lakers’ telenovela season. Though limited to 65 games or fewer for the fourth time in five seasons, he has capitalized on often being the lone adult watching over the Lakers’ day care, bouncing back from the worst season of his career with a mild yet respectable player efficiency rating of 19.5. Maybe it’s not the horn-grabbing, prove-the-doubters-wrong, Ewing Theory-ish performance some might have hoped for with Bryant sidelined -- he’s shooting under 50 percent from the field for just the third time in his 13-year career -- but it does suggest that Gasol can still be pretty damn good, even after 32,000 NBA minutes and thousands more in international competition.

But what should we make of pretty good? It’s the question it feels like we’ve been asking about Gasol, indirectly or otherwise, since he became prominent enough to ask it. He’s among the most skilled 7-footers ever, and the stretchy, finesse game he and others imported helped usher in pretty significant changes in the way NBA teams utilize their big men. But he’s no offensive juggernaut like Dirk Nowitzki. He’s the older, more popular, more successful Gasol brother, but he’s no defensive monster like Marc. He’s got those two titles, but, I mean, Kobe. Stuck in a sports world defined by greatness, and paired with a certain teammate more obsessed with it than anyone, “pretty good” basically reads as “also-ran.” And so we latch onto the only thing we have that makes him extraordinary among the ultra-competitive, ultra-athletic, ultra-stylish superhumans that dominate the game’s storyline: He’s super nice. But Future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol just isn’t as interesting as Nice Guy Pau Gasol.

This isn’t new, either. More of an update. The bulk of Gasol’s career has been defined by the idea that -- or at least the debate over whether -- his game is “soft.” When Gasol rose to prominence, NBA fans, and Lakers fans in particular, had grown accustomed to the big man as just that, both in physical stature and personality. But Gasol is more likely to baby hook or be in the right place for an offensive rebound than bash skulls and break out into rap. His deft touch from 10 feet out was misinterpreted as some phobia of MIXIN’ IT UP, his guard-like vision underappreciated in a world of Godzillas and Gameras. He was one of the five most efficient big men in the NBA in each of his first three full seasons with the Lakers, but it’s harder to appreciate those masterful drop steps to easy dunks when they don’t leave the basket stanchion shaking.

Since that fortuitous midseason deal that sent him to Los Angeles, Gasol has existed in a fishbowl where everything is filtered through the lens of Bryant -- his standards, his behavior -- and not showing the same public ferocity, outside of arguing calls, has always colored Gasol as lesser than. But those differences are ultimately what's made Gasol and Bryant such a good fit. Shaq’s dominance helped Kobe to that extra ring, and that matters, but Gasol's deference, both in personality and style of play, fit Bryant better than O’Neal ever did. Said Bryant about O’Neal in a recent profile in The New Yorker: “It used to drive me crazy that he was so lazy. You got to have the responsibility of working every single day. You can’t skate through s---.” If O’Neal was an attention-seeking “clown,” as described in that profile, then Gasol was the efficient assistant Bryant's one-man act always needed. The relationship has incurred its bumps -- which involving Bryant hasn’t? -- but we’re now at the point where Bryant says things like, “If I could choose my brother,” it would be Gasol.

[+] EnlargePau Gasol
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiPau Gasol won two titles in L.A., but his Lakers run could end amid one of the franchise's worst seasons.
It’s that acceptance from Bryant that ultimately seems to have quelled concerns that often obscure Gasol's brilliance. Guys like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love stepping out to the 3-point line helped, and winning a title or two seems to have given him some Skull and Bones-type privileges in L.A., but Gasol now operates with the official Bryant seal of approval, which effectively works as a giant force field against derision from a certain swath of the public. Being likened to a swan isn't cool unless it’s Bryant making the comparison.

And so we’re left with ... what, exactly? Now that the context in which we've viewed him for so long doesn't really exist, we can see Gasol for what he really is. But at 33 and on the wrong side of his peak, what’s there to see isn’t much, relative to what was. Pretty good can’t carry a team of mercenaries and borderline pros into contention, clearly, or make all of those national TV games compelling, and so those 29, 12 and four nights just sink to the bottom of the news stack, his dust-ups with Mike D’Antoni become clouds of smoke in the most forgettable Lakers season in about a decade. The Celtics holding on to Rondo at the February trade deadline opened up a whole mess of new questions about his and the franchise’s future. The Lakers’ inability to move Gasol seemed to signal an end for which all parties had long since been prepared.

Now, after this recent spate of vertigo, it appears likely that his finale has, appropriately, already come and gone. Maybe Gasol will receive some sort of curtain call from his bench seat at one of the remaining four home games as the Lakers, with their loss total creeping closer and closer to 60, play out the string. Otherwise, all that appears to be left is that inevitable last thank-you tweet to fans, and maybe one more this summer to say goodbye.

What a nice guy, we’ll say. And that’ll be that.

Lakers fans' civil war

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
12:41
PM ET
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
LakersAP Photo/Alex GallardoWin now or play for later? Kobe Bryant's extension has turned the Lakers fan divide into a chasm.
It’s been a difficult two years for a typically well-rewarded Lakers fan base. For the first time since 2005 and just the fifth since the 1960 relocation to Los Angeles, the Lakers will miss the postseason. This team is historically bad, and solutions for a fast makeover are few and far between. Uncertainty is a foreign, unsettling concept for this franchise. But through the adversity, fans have been able to cope by raging with solidarity against their grievances.

Mike D’Antoni. Jim Buss. Dwight Howard. David Stern. The Clippers.

All targets of distrust and disgust, all forces of evil blamed for the downward spiral. Misery loves company, and in this regard, Lakers fans have remained largely unified company.

Next season, however, could throw that brotherhood for a loop, as two very distinctly different sects of Lakers fans may find themselves uncomfortably pitted against each other.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
David McNew/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant's long legacy in Los Angeles has transformed a sector of Lakers fans into Kobe-ites.
Lakers fans vs. Kobe Bryant fans.

The independence of these two cliques has never been secret. There are fans who care first and foremost about the franchise, and there are fans who see the franchise first and foremost as a vehicle for Kobe’s greatness.

By and large, these factions have coexisted comfortably through the years, but their priorities are more mutually exclusive than one would rationally expect.

Then again, Kobe Bryant is anything but an ordinary superstar, and Kobe zealots are a breed different than I’ve seen in my entire life watching and covering sports.

The Mamba is regarded by this contingency as half basketball god, half political prisoner. An indestructible force of nature, yet encased in bubble wrap to protect him from the slings and arrows of jealous haters consumed with denying the Mamba’s greatness. True Kobe-ites will gladly step into traffic to protect him from an oncoming car, but feel disappointment it wasn’t actually a bus.

In fairness to Kobe’s vigilantes, getting his back has often felt like getting hit by a Greyhound. Bryant’s career has been shaped by persistent PR turbulence. Feuds with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. Getting (too much) blame for the three-peat core’s dissolution. Colorado. The 2007 offseason, in which he demanded a trade to Pluto. His relentlessly demanding relationship with teammates. An-court persona that would raise Hannibal Lecter’s eyebrows. Throw in the reductive -- and idiotic -- idea that Kobe’s first three titles on “Shaq’s teams” somehow counted less, and the guy has spent considerable time between the crosshairs. Bryant may be more popular than polarizing these days, but likability will never be his calling card.

Of course, Kobe Bryant is also an indisputable icon, an athlete destined to go down as one of basketball’s all-time greats, and a lifer for one of sports’ most storied franchises. The fervent didn’t choose him by accident. Even Lakers fans who don’t worship at the altar take considerable pride knowing Kobe is one of their own.

However, that sect pledges its loyalty to the franchise first, and these fans are hyper-aware of where life currently stands for the Lakers. The future has been mortgaged bone-dry after surrendering multiple picks to acquire Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and to jettison the contracts of Derek Fisher and Luke Walton. The new CBA was designed to prevent teams like the Lakers from reloading through economic superiority.

Painful as these losses have been, another underwhelming season might be necessary to create a sustainable, bright future. For the first time in eons, the Lakers are in position to build from the ground up, and whatever critical designs are in place can’t be altered to placate a 36-year-old player who has more than 54,000 career minutes played (playoffs included) and is coming off consecutive significant injuries. Even if that player happens to be Kobe Bryant.

And that’s where the situation gets sticky. During Kobe’s March news conference to confirm his knee injury was season-ending, he expressed “not a lick” of patience for a slow rebuild. Some interpreted this as Kobe putting pressure on the organization, but I question his leverage. Under (a very expensive) contract through 2016, if Bryant demanded a trade, his salary, age, injury history and complicating no-trade clause make the request borderline impossible. This isn’t like when he wanted out as arguably the league’s best player in his prime. All 29 other teams would have bent over backward to get him. I have to imagine even Kobe recognizes the present-day contextual difference.

In my opinion, Kobe wasn’t speaking so much to the front office as to the fans. He even cited them while explaining the premium placed on winning: “A lot of times it's hard to understand that message if you're not a die-hard Laker fan." Bryant, himself a Lakers fan growing up, is too smart and calculated for this phrasing to be incidental. It felt like a call to arms for fans to voice mutual displeasure over operating at anything less than “Championship or bust.” And for every Kobe-first fan who’ll stump on his behalf, who shares his impatience, who feels the organization “owes” him better than a swan song of mediocrity, there’s a Lakers-first fan who feels rebuilding the roster twice around Kobe between 2008 and 2013 equals a “debt” paid, especially after he wasn’t inclined to take an extension sacrificing “highest paid player in the NBA” status for increased cap flexibility so that ASAP rebuild would be easier. Frankly, there are Lakers fans who will blame Kobe if the rebuild takes an extended period of time.

And therein lies the schism.

So what would a purple-and-gold civil war look like, beyond incessant arguments throughout the Twittersphere and in comment sections? Ultimately, a sobering reexamination by both parties of (eventually) 20 years of Lakers basketball.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesHow grand will Kobe Bryant's finale be in L.A.?
Were Kobe catered to any further, or were it to become clear his presence (for a variety of potential reasons) has stuck the team in neutral, Lakers-first fans could develop a sour taste for arguably the greatest player in franchise history, a wholly unique career filled with riches and rare basketball artistry. Life with Kobe is never easy, but the good has easily outweighed the bad. Scales tipped in the opposite direction on his way out would be unfortunate.

Conversely, ignoring Bryant’s wishes could prompt bitterness from Kobe-first fans toward a franchise ultimately still close to their heart. However, that loyalty line has long been drawn in the sand, and Kobe twisting in the wind for two years (or milked for the financial windfall of a farewell tour) could be viewed as an unforgivable act. The transition to post-Mamba life will be tough for this crowd under the best of circumstances, much less messy ones.

Los Angeles is inherently something of a divided city. The geography is sprawling, with traffic snarls creating even more buffers. Good neighborhoods turn bad on a dime. Its ethnicities reflect more or less the globe, and some pockets keep to themselves. L.A.’s image is equally shaped by the Hollywood jet set and street gangs. But as someone who spent years bartending in Santa Monica, Pasadena and several places in between, I can attest to the bonding powers of a Lakers broadcast. Perhaps nothing in L.A. bridges more racial and socio-economic differences. Lakers fans may reek of entitlement, but despite popular belief, they aren’t flaky bandwagon riders. This is a rabid, passionate base, slavishly devoted to the franchise and its considerable list of icons, with Kobe Bryant the latest in line.

Will it be the name on the front or the back of the jersey that matters most moving forward?

Andy Kamenetzky has covered the Lakers and the NBA for ESPN.com and the Los Angeles Times, and can be heard regularly on ESPNLA 710. Follow the Kamenetzky Brothers @kambrothers, and download their podcast on iTunes.

Is Carmelo a superstar?

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
1:25
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
Archive
Amin Elhassan debates whether the Lakers or Knicks are closer to returning to contention and if Carmelo Anthony should still be considered a superstar.

video

In their dreams

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
10:26
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Who do the Sixers dream of drafting? What about the Bucks, Magic and Celtics? And have the Lakers already identified their man? We ask Chad Ford.

Phil Jackson doesn't know everything

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
12:08
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Phil JacksonJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesIt's hard to argue with Phil Jackson's results, but does his Phil-first process fit the modern NBA?
Phil Jackson is the Winston Churchill of the NBA. He won the biggest wars with a combination of old-school toughness and new-school guile.

Victory in hand, the dominant equation for both became: Big mouth + bigger ego = the verbal victory lap. Any quote book is loaded with Churchill’s high-testosterone patter. Jackson’s latest book, ostensibly about teamwork, has a title that has only to do with Jackson. Michael Jordan didn't win "Eleven Rings." Neither did Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal or Scottie Pippen. Only Phil did.

Jackson is expected to return to the NBA, as a New York Knicks executive, packing not just a lot of the NBA’s gravitas, but the majority of it. Add up all your other coaches, players and experts. If Phil says they’re full of it ... his voice is even money to carry the day.

That has to be a big part of why Jackson could mean so much to a team like the Knicks. The common denominator of their dominant commonness has been bad front-office decision-making, specifically one high-profile overspend after another. There's no arguing James Dolan is an owner without a clue, determined to bludgeon the competition not with his insight, but with his wallet -- a method that, for a bundle of league-wide cap reasons, always makes teams difficult to improve and almost never ends in titles.

[+] EnlargePhil Jackson
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesPhil Jackson's resume alone isn't going to erase the Knicks' woes
If Jackson arrives in New York packing the stature to silence the Knicks’ most foolish impulses, he’ll be a titan. Dolan’s piles of gold -- as a businessman, Dolan is no laughingstock; the Knicks make money -- would be so much shinier with the polish of wisdom.

The Knicks might already be the world’s most over-loved team. New York hoops fans, those hopeless romantics, have been dashing their hearts on the rocks of false optimism since the days of Patrick Ewing. Remember when Zach Randolph was the revolution? Amar’e Stoudemire? Carmelo Anthony?

Time and again, Dolan has gotten his man. Time and again, like Charlie Brown, the fans have believed. Time and again, the only thing needed to prove Dolan got the wrong man has been time.

Will this time be different?

I’m convinced the answer is no, and not because Jackson’s the wrong guy, but because this is the wrong time.

It’s too late. The league is changing too fast, learning too much, and Jackson, for all the open-mindedness that once led him to the novel and wonderful triangle offense, has been telegraphing his incuriousness for more than a decade.

This is not just basketball’s boom time for analytics, it’s also, as Nate Silver wrote recently in ESPN The Magazine, when analytics become basketball necessities, as opposed to niceties. From the stew of SportVu, Catapult and Vantage comes things that really matter: which pick-and-roll defenses stops which ball handlers, which offenses generate the best-quality looks, who plays good defense, the right number of hours to sleep before a big game and, increasingly, which players need to come out of the game right now before their fatigue-induced injury risk skyrockets.

It’s not that any one person knows ALL the right answers. It’s that no ONE person knows all the right answers. Much of this new stuff will prove to science bunk, but the best of it is exponentially better by the day. The only right answer is to be curious.

And at that, the league has passed Jackson by. All his books, all those interviews, all that insight into his thinking, and has he ever even once told of finding value in insight from a younger generation? Or, indeed, from anyone beyond his chosen short list of apostles?

Jackson spoke at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. As he did, I took notes, but I soon stopped. There was no point. Other than a rude joke about needing a “grain elevator” to weigh Shaq, these were all things told previously. The oft-recited Gospel According to St. Phil. His conversation was a museum piece, the recurring soup of the words “Michael Jordan,” “Kobe Bryant” and “Scottie Pippen” that Jackson has been ladling out forever.

More importantly, Jackson was not at Sloan to learn. Never has been. Tuning people out, and discrediting them even, is also a mainstay of Jackson’s game -- just ask Jerry West, or Jerry Krause.

Jackson’s Lakers never bothered to attend the stat-geek confab, and the Lakers were famously the only NBA team not to have a representative there last year. Jackson’s generic public take on basketball innovation has long been, essentially, that Red Holzman and Tex Winter knew all that stuff.

At Sloan, Jackson bragged of once playing O’Neal 48 minutes per game -- on the same day sport scientist Michael Regan, of Catapult Sports, explained how resting after stints of just eight minutes dramatically improved performance in Australian Rules Football, a league that’s enjoying massive injury reductions league-wide thanks to science-based things we've learned only in the past decade.

It’s not that Jackson can’t make the Knicks winners. He might. Indeed, as the argument goes, at least he has won, unlike everyone else in the building. But he’s sending all the wrong signals if the task is to outclass 29 other teams in a race starting in 2014. That prize will, almost certainly, go to whoever best masters new ideas, about which Phil says, basically: Who needs ‘em?

The cautionary tale here of course is in Charlotte. Michael Jordan also filled the staff with like-minded friends. But, of course, a great executive is far more than a great player who lost his spring or a great coach who tired of travel. Without piling one good decision on top of another, the team is lost. The Bobcats did everything Jordan’s way for a while, until the competitive forces humbled even Jordan, who now listens not just to his gut and his friends, but also to people such as new executive Rich Cho, who is effectively the team’s ambassador from the post-Jordan, Sloan-infused world of hoops insight.

Jackson and the Knicks aren't playing the exact same tune as MJ and the Bobcats -- they have deeper pockets and more intricate team-building experience -- but they’re sounding a lot of the same notes.

Thunder fall out of first as Clippers close in

March, 9, 2014
Mar 9
9:33
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
Archive
LOS ANGELES -- Big win for the Los Angeles Clippers in Sunday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. That’s not a mistake. Even though the scoreboard said it was the Lakers that beat the Thunder, 114-110, the Clippers were the biggest beneficiary.

When the Clippers beat the Lakers by 48 points last week the accomplishment was lost amid nationwide scuba diving to determine just how low the Lakers had sunk. Maybe now the Clippers’ accomplishments in that landmark victory and their seven-game winning streak can bob to the surface. People can realize that the Lakers didn’t simply roll over, the Clippers did plenty of kicking. The Clippers turned a 15-point lead against the Lakers into a 52-point lead. The Thunder turned an 18-point lead into an 18-point deficit, and then an L. “You can’t play the score, you have to play the game,” Oklahoma City’s Derek Fisher said, in one of those veteran-y quotes.

Oh, and the Clippers are now within 2½ games of Oklahoma City’s second spot in the Western Conference standings. So, yeah, Sunday was a good day for the Clippers.
[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant had 27 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists but OKC fell to the Lakers.

The one thing you haven’t heard the Clippers do lately is lament. As in: “We did not come with the defensive intensity that we needed in the third quarter,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks lamented.

That’s a verb used only when you don’t get what you want. The Clippers have gotten the W in their past seven games, making them the hottest team in the league at the moment. They’re beginning to grasp the defensive concepts Doc Rivers is preaching, and held four of seven opponents to less than 100 points during the streak, a standard they failed to meet in nine of their previous 10 games.

While they’re reaching a crescendo, the Thunder have fallen into what Coach Brooks called “a defensive valley,” allowing opponents to score 110 points per game and shoot 47 percent while losing five of their past eight games. They dropped into second place in the Western Conference, a half game behind the San Antonio Spurs, who’ve won six straight and have to be feeling good about themselves as well.

Brooks was as critical as he gets about his team, saying, “It comes down to taking pride in guarding your man and we had trouble staying in front of the basketball tonight” as well as “In the third quarter we did not come out with the defensive toughness it takes to win in this league.”

The Thunder aren’t making excuses about the absence of the injured Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, but it’s clearly an issue.

“Thabo is a defensive player,” Brooks said. “Perk is one of our best defensive players. He’s not only good on the post, he’s good on the pick-and-roll coverage and he’s good at communicating.”

Perkins communicates not only on the court but in the locker room and through the media, quick to call out insufficient efforts from his team. He wasn’t around Sunday, so that left it to Fisher.

Yes, Kevin Durant, a 40 percent 3-point shooter on the season, has shot 33 percent on 3-pointers in February and is 9-for-32 (28 percent) in four games in March. And just when it seemed Russell Westbrook had regained his shooting touch by making 58 percent of his shots in the previous five games, he cratered to a 7-for-23 (30 percent) shooting performance Sunday afternoon.

Those aren’t the type of things that have Fisher concerned.

“It’s a larger perspective in terms of just where we are as a team, our mentality, our mindset, our ability to bring the right type of focus to the game,” Fisher said.

“As a team we have to decide what’s most important to us. And if it’s the team’s success, then you’ll start to see offensively and defensively things tighten up the way they need to tighten up. … Just in terms of respecting the game, respecting each other, bringing the right sense of urgency to our jobs.

“I don’t question guys’ commitment to the team, I’m just saying we’re not right now putting it out there on the court."

The Thunder left the arena muttering to themselves, the Lakers were granted a temporary reprieve from their miserable season, and Jodie Meeks had a career-high 42 points to savor. Nobody had it better than the Clippers, though. They had a day off to enjoy a beautiful afternoon in L.A., and their status improved at the same time.

Moving up without moving on

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
10:14
AM ET
By Brendan I. Koerner
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Michael Olowokandi and Blake GriffinGetty ImagesAfter decades at the bottom, the Clippers' sudden rise is still tough to grasp for longtime devotees.
When I swore fealty to the Los Angeles Clippers in fall 1984, at the start of the team’s inaugural season in my sun-kissed hometown, I assumed that I wouldn’t have to wait more than a few years to attend my first championship parade. My concept of the ebb and flow of basketball fortunes had been warped by the Los Angeles Times sports section, which had conditioned me to expect Lakers titles on a biennial basis.

By my naive third-grade logic, any franchise that alighted in L.A. had to be the Lakers’ equal in terms of talent and organizational prowess; otherwise, why would they have the temerity to challenge the city's most cherished team for the population’s hearts and minds? Surely the Clippers would have their turn atop the NBA's summit, perhaps once Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finally called it a career. And when the team inevitably earned its first ring, I would be the only kid at school who could claim to have been a true acolyte since Day 1. All those smug, conformist Lakers fans would marvel at my prescience -- including my dad, who once declared that the sweetest sound in the world was the snap of the net after a James Worthy jumper.

I didn't fully awaken to the folly of my plan until 4 1/2 years later, after poor Danny Manning's right ACL turned into mincemeat on a grim Milwaukee night. By the time that cataclysm occurred, I was already more than a bit bewildered by the Clippers’ obvious deficiencies on the court. In sharp contrast to the Showtime Lakers, who ran the break with such balletic grace, the Clippers played an ugly brand of basketball that featured lots of errant passes and boneheaded fourth-quarter fouls, punctuated by the more-than-occasional Lancaster Gordon air ball. The roster teemed with over-the-hill veterans who gasped for breath after every missed rebound, plus a smattering of overhyped greenhorns who seemingly lost all heart upon first setting foot inside the squalid Sports Arena. When Manning’s knee gave way just 26 games into what was supposed to be a Hall of Fame career, I knew for certain that I had mistakenly opted for a life of misery by casting my lot with the Clippers.

Yet I never came close to abandoning my ill-starred team, even though I understood that decades’ worth of heartache lay ahead. After a boyhood spent obsessing over sports, I understood that there are few archetypes more justly despised than the fair-weather fan. We must suffer the consequences of our bad choices, even when those choices were made before we understood all of the variables involved. To reject the Clippers just because they were a tragic punch line would be tantamount to begging the cosmos for special treatment. And no one respects the guy who’s always asking for mulligans when things don't go exactly according to plan.

Instead of turning my back on the Clippers, I learned to appreciate their minor regular-season triumphs and, more important, to take a peculiar pride in the absurdity of their tribulations. When owner-cum-supervillain Donald Sterling raised the possibility of making the players buy their own socks, for example, or allegedly asked a prostitute whether he should hire Alvin Gentry, I felt strangely elated. With such an odious character atop the hierarchy, the fact the Clippers actually managed to make the playoffs every once in a blue moon was arguably quite a feat. Or when questionable first-round picks such as Michael Olowokandi and Bo Kimble proved the conventional wisdom correct by flaming out, I could only congratulate myself for sticking by a team whose college scouting department was evidently staffed by utter dolts.

Having developed these coping mechanisms during 30 years of Clippers fandom, I now find it difficult to believe that Lob City is anything more than a mirage. We’ve been teased before, of course, notably during those few brief days when it seemed that free-agent signing Baron Davis might get the chance to feed Elton Brand in the post. When Brand opted to break our hearts by signing with the Sixers, no bona fide Clippers fan was surprised -- we accept that our lot in life is to have contentment snatched away from us at the last moment, much like Tantalus never quite being able to grasp that fruit branch in hell.

And so I fear that a sudden stroke of misfortune will doom this winning Clippers team that has brought me so much joy. Perhaps Chris Paul’s oft-repaired legs will permanently turn to Jell-O. Or Blake Griffin will suddenly forget all he's learned about playing with his back to the basket. Or Sterling will scare away a crucial free agent by once again saying something shockingly boorish or racist.

[+] EnlargeDanny Manning
AP Photo/Lennox McLendonThe current-day Clippers' success and high-wire act can't heal all old wounds, for better and for worse.
Yet a small part of me also feels nostalgic for the darkest of Clippers days, when there was a perverse sense of honor in adoring such an infamously dreadful team. It is easy to feel a special kinship with fellow Clippers fans who can recite chapter and verse about the frustrations of the Benoit Benjamin era; suffering unites in a way that success never can.

Once, while traveling through Slovakia, I bumped into a fellow Clippers aficionado with whom I shared a long exchange about our infamous 1987 draft, when we somehow managed to convert three of the first 19 picks into Reggie Williams, Joe Wolf and Ken Norman -- in other words, nada. I daresay the connection we made that day, as we commiserated over 30-cent glasses of red wine, was an order of magnitude richer than anything two Lakers fans could forge while discussing the glorious Pat Riley years.

The legions of new Clippers fans, who have flocked to the team as its style has evolved from plodding to dynamic, are a bunch that I regard with both suspicion and pity. I have no quibble with folks who will one day tell their kids that their Clippers love was sparked by the artistry of Paul -- I accept that most origin stories of fandom are less narcissistic than my own. But I suspect that a fair chunk of the new fan base will not see their commitment through to the grave, but rather just until the day that Griffin takes his talents elsewhere. Anyone who stops supporting my Clippers at that moment will miss out on plenty of emotional tumult, for better and for worse.

Alas, I needn't even bother worrying about whether my son will be a Clippers lifer. Though I made sure to dress him in a Brand onesie during his toddler phase, the boy has opted to pour his heart and soul into pulling for the Knicks. At least he’ll develop a deep understanding of how teams can be ruined by capricious owners.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of "The Skies Belong to Us." Follow him @brendankoerner.

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