All Ball Sport: Old guys roll, Clippers need a leader, Biles is one

LeBron James at the start of the 2019 season, during simpler times. Photo Ray Vidal

by Paul Teetor

How old is the Lakers new roster?

So old that fans who beat the traffic to Staples Center will get the early bird special. 

So old that anyone with an AARP card will get half-off at the door.

So old that when Carmelo Anthony hits a 3-point shot the public address announcer will shout “Bingo — we have a winner.”

NBA fans of rival teams could go on with the corny Lakers-are-too-old jokes for an entire season. And they undoubtedly will unless, and until LeBron James shuts them up by leading his new/old team to another NBA title to go with the one he and Anthony Davis won in the Florida bubble in the cruel pandemic summer of 2020. 

Once Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka got done spending the $16 million he had left after paying the team’s big three – LeBron, AD and newly arrived Russell Westbrook – a combined total of $120 million a year, the Lakers suddenly had the oldest roster in the NBA. Indeed, the oldest in the last 15 years.

After Twitter exploded with ageist jokes for the first 24 hours, LeBron had had enough.

He let loose with a bitter, sarcastic, we’ll-show-you tweet that he quickly deleted.

But nothing ever dies on the internet, and his tweet will live on forever: 

“Keep talking about my squad, our personnel ages, how long he will play, he stays injured, we’re past our time in this league, etc. etc. etc. Do me one favor PLEASE! And I mean PLEASE!!! Keep that same narrative ENERGY when it begins. That’s all I ask. #Thank you.”

Of course his ill-conceived tweet did nothing but throw fuel on the dumpster fire that is the debate over just how much his new team has left in the gas tank. And I say “new team” because before the free agency shopping market opened Monday morning, the Lakers had only three players under contract: LeBron, 36. A.D. 28, and center Marc Gasol, 36.

So the Lakers and Pelinka went shopping with a thin wallet and a desperate need for perimeter shooters to surround their new big-3. Let’s take a look at what Pelinka brought home in his 99-cent store shopping bag.

Carmelo Anthony: A 10-time All Star, the 37-year-old future first ballot Hall of Famer checks off two of the most important boxes in the Lakers search for a supporting cast: he is a close friend of LeBron, and he can shoot 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip. Drafted in 2003 after leading Syracuse to a national title, he had his best years in Denver and New York but never got a sniff of the NBA Finals. After almost dropping out of the league a few years ago, the big-ego gunner stunned everyone by accepting a bench role with the Portland Trail Blazers and excelling in that role: rebound – something he has always done well thanks to his sturdy 6-foot-9 frame – and hit outside shots when Blazers star Damian Lillard was forced to pass the ball. But Portland is going in a younger direction and Melo no longer fit. So he accepted a veteran’s minimum contract to fulfill his long-held dream of playing with LeBron. The big question is the same as it is for half the roster: does he have anything left? Grade: B-

Trevor Ariza: The former Westchester High and UCLA star is so old that he played a key role on the Lakers 2009 championship team. When he demanded a big raise, the Lakers let him go to Houston and replaced him with Ron Artest, aka Metta World Peace, for the 2010 championship run. Since then he has played on 12 different teams – including twice with the Rockets and twice with the Wizards. His calling card is tenacious defense, he can hit 3-pointers and he’s a familiar face to the Lakers. But again, he’s at that age – 36 — where the legs can go at any time, especially when the season drags on into March and April, before the playoffs start. But if he’s even a shadow of his old self – sorry, former self – he can be an asset to the Big 3. Grade: B-

Dwight Howard: it’s hard to believe this clown is coming back for his third stint as a Laker. After one disastrous season as a Laker in 2012-13 when Kobe Bryant couldn’t hide his contempt for the alleged superstar’s pathetic work ethic and refusal to accept his role as a rebounder-defender, Howard rejected then-GM Mitch Kupchak’s pleas to accept a max contract and bolted to Houston. He thought he was burning Kobe and the Lakers, but he actually did them a huge favor. He immediately became a journeyman who couldn’t stick with any of the six teams he played for in the next seven years. After playing on the Lakers 2020 title team, he left for Philly and naturally proclaimed that he loved it there and expected to end his career there. That lasted exactly 12 months, and he and Pelinka had needs that matched up: he needed a job and Pelinka needed someone who could at least impersonate a starting NBA center for the veteran’s minimum salary. He will turn 36 in a couple of months. Grade: D-  

Wayne Ellington: Another sharp shooter who hit 40 percent of his three-point shots last season, he’s back for his second stint as a Laker after one very unhappy season back in 2014-15. At 33 years old he figures to have a couple more decent seasons left in him and checks the most important box: outside shooting. Grade: B

Kent Bazemore: Another former Laker, this 32-year-old wing player is a younger version of Ariza: a good defender who can hit outside shots. A classic 3-and-D player who could end up as a Pelinka steal if he can avoid injury. Grade: B+

Kendrick Nunn: A 6-foot-2 gunner who is a walking bucket. Supremely talented, it’s hard to see why Miami didn’t re-sign him other than that the Heat have a log jam in their backcourt and had to let someone with big-time talent go. He signed a two-year, $10 million deal and could have gotten more elsewhere but turned it down to chase a title with the Lakers – and to enjoy the LA lifestyle. He figures to play more and more as the season goes on. At age 26, he averaged 15 points per game for the Heat in each of the last two seasons. His second year is a player option, which means if he has a good year he will be asking for a lot more money next summer. Grade: A

Malik Monk: The Charlotte Hornets let this compulsive shooter go because he was too streaky for their taste, and plays too little defense. Also because their NBA rookie-of-the-year, LaMelo Ball, wanted him gone after he refused to give Ball his number, 1, to wear on his jersey. Ball has always insisted on wearing the number 1 wherever he played, from Chino Hills to Lithuania to Australia. Monk, a former lottery pick, averaged 12 points a game last year. He can get red hot, and when he does Lakers Coach Frank Vogel will be smart enough to keep him in the game. But he can also go 2-for-15 cold, and we have to hope Vogel is smart enough to sit him at that point. Bonus: At age 23 he helps to bring down the team’s average age.

So there you have it: 3 dinosaurs in Melo, Ariza and the self-proclaimed Superman, guys who could be all done but may have one more decent season left. Two late prime glue guys in Ellington and Bazemore who should be able to fill a supporting role. And two shot-happy kids in Kendrick Nunn and Malik Monk who may be smart enough to let LeBron and Westbrook create easy shots for them instead of trying to do it themselves.

And then there were the Lakers own free agents, Alex Caruso and Talen Horton Tucker.

Caruso, who worked himself up from an undrafted unknown four years ago to a fan favorite who fit perfectly with LeBron because of his tough D and reliable 3-point shot, signed with Chicago for four years and $37 million, a deal the Lakers were unable or unwilling to match. He will be sorely missed on and off the court.

Horton-Tucker, or THT as he is known, is still just 20 years old after establishing himself as a rotation player last year, a guy who has the burst and the athleticism to get his own shot and to finish crazy, acrobatic shots at the rim. Although he’s not a great outside shooter, Pelinka felt he had to choose him over Caruso because of his ridiculous upside. It says here he made the right choice, even though Caruso’s steadiness and defensive toughness is a significant loss.

The overall grade for Pelinka and the Lakers front office: A-

Of course that doesn’t include the blockbuster Westbrook trade, which was discussed in last week’s All Ball column entitled: What the Hell was Rob Pelinka Thinking?

But given that the Westbrook trade was a fait accompli before Pelinka went shopping in the NBA’s bargain bin, he did an amazing job – especially in getting Nunn and Monk on below-market deals.

Kawhi finally makes a decision – sort of

There’s been no official announcement yet, but Clippers mega-star Kawhi Leonard is staying with the team. That’s according to sources close to Leonard, which usually means his family members and his entourage are leaking to favored media sources, with his blessing.

Just how long he’s coming back for is still up in the air. The Clippers are reportedly preparing a list of contact options now that he has formally declined his one-year option for next season at $36 million.

That means no matter which option he chooses, he will be making more than $36 million per. 

Of course, the reality is that he will probably miss all of next season rehabbing from knee surgery and won’t actually appear in a Clippers uniform until the start of the 2022-23 season. But not even that is a certainty: one of his options now is to sign a two-year deal, with the second year a player option.

In other words, under that scenario, the Clippers will finance his rehab at a cost of $40 million or more, and then go through this whole nightmare of uncertainty again next summer while they hope and pray that he at least chooses to opt in for his second year. 

Although it took him five days of the free agency period to signal that he was coming back, Clippers fans felt more and more confident he would return as one by one, his teammates and friends all announced they were coming back. First was Serge Ibaka, the center and former Raptors teammate who came over from Toronto last summer at Kawhi’s urging. Then came Nicholas Batum, the versatile center-forward and star of the French Olympic team who played such a big role in the Clippers’ joyride to the Western Conference Finals. Finally, Reggie Jackson, the shoot-first point guard who exploded in the playoffs and drew interest from several other contenders, signed a 2-year, $22 million deal.

Now all they need is their leader and unquestioned mega-star back and they will be legit NBA title contenders, even in the stacked Western Conference.

Too bad they probably will have to wait a year for Kawhi’s return and a real chance at a championship run. Remember, Kawhi averaged 30 points and shot 57% in the playoffs this year and looked to be on track for a going-all-the-way title run before Utah’s Joe Ingles bumped him off-stride in a borderline dirty play that will now keep him out of action for 9-12 months.

Maybe during his year off he can work on his leadership skills. The very best leaders, like LeBron and Chris Paul and Steph Curry, do more than work their magic on the court. Off the court they work hard to make their teammates better, to get their team pulling together as one, and to inspire their teammates to play their best when it matters most, in the playoffs.

So far, Kawhi has been a lead-by-example type of guy on the court who seems disengaged off the court. Now he needs to take the next step and become an off-court leader too. 

Simone Biles shows true Olympic courage

Simone Biles is my new hero.

Not because she is the greatest gymnast of all time – which she is – but because of her extraordinary courage in confessing weakness.

Naomi Osaka is my hero, too.

And you might as well throw in Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Paul George of the Clippers.

Biles is only 4-foot-10 and 100 pounds, while Osaka is 5-foot-3 and 120 pounds.

Love, on the other hand, is 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, while George is a willowy 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds.

But whatever their size and weight, big or small physically, they’re all giants and pioneers in the nascent movement to bring mental health issues among elite athletes out into the open.

As someone who doesn’t know a balance beam from a moonbeam, All Ball suspects Biles’ controversial decision to withdraw from most of her events after confessing that she had developed “the twisties” – a dreaded condition of losing her spatial awareness while high up in the air – will live on as the most significant event of the 2020 pandemic Olympics that were played in the summer of 2021 minus spectators.

Biles was immediately attacked by mental midgets like Charlie Kirk, the chairman of Students for Trump. After she withdrew, Kirk used his podcast to brand her a “sociopath” and a “shame to the country.”

Then the 27-year-old conservative activist took it a step further. 

“We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles,” he said. “If she’s got all these mental health problems, then don’t show up.”

Other right-wingers jumped on the anti-Biles bandwagon, just as they had piled on when Osaka withdrew from the French Open after the top-ranked female tennis player in the world confessed that mandatory post-match press conferences made her so nervous and anxious that she would rather not play.

That they are both women of color, I’m sure is just a coincidence.

Last year, both Love and George talked openly about their depression and performance anxiety during the stress-ridden NBA playoffs. In the macho world of the NBA, such candor was shocking but ultimately enlightening. Now Biles and Osaka have built on that breakthrough.

Fans need to know that these people are ordinary human beings, not athletic gods with no weaknesses, physical or mental.

One of the unintended consequences of the internet has been the universal ability to slag anyone anywhere for any reason. Celebrities – athletes and entertainers especially – have been the most prominent victims of this unfortunate trend.

Biles, Osaka, Love and George have at least made a start towards the day when attack dogs like Charlie Kirk will be seen as what they are: cowards with none of the spiritual courage of the very people they are attacking.

And that’s all that All Ball has to say about that

Contact: Follow @paulteetor. ER 



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