All Ball Sports: Beach volleyball’s Klineman, Ross eye gold, Lakers big two-and-a-half, Clippers’ Leonard has fans on ice

April Ross, of Costa Mesa, and Alix Klineman, of Manhattan Beach, celebrate a point last month during an impromptu tournament at 16th Street in Hermosa Beach. The team defeated the Swiss Wednesday evening. They will play Australia in the gold medal match. Photo by Brad Jacobson

by Paul Teetor

Beach volleyball hopes

The four American beach volleyball teams went to the Tokyo Olympics with high hopes – hopes that were justified based on their performances in the qualifying tournaments. But now those hopes are looking a bit less justified.

The A-Team of Alix Klineman and April Ross was so dominant that they clinched their Olympic berth months ago. And the team of Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes – the youngest team ever to represent America – came on strong late in the qualifying tournaments as they overtook living legend Kerri Walsh Jennings and her partner Brooke Sweat to grab the second American Olympic berth. Walsh-Jennings was trying for her sixth Olympic appearance, but fell just short.

Sponcil and Claes lost Saturday night to a Canadian team of Heather Bansley and Brandi Wilkerson in their first match in the knock-out round. They lost in three sets and frankly were lucky to win the first set. They fell behind 3-0 right away, and were only able to catch up late in the set after the Canadians unleashed seven service errors, an extraordinary amount for high-level competition. 

Claes, the more technically skilled of the two players, did her job as well as she could. But Sponcil, the fierier and more vocal of the two, simply had a bad day. She was a second late on shots she would normally dig out with ease, guessed prematurely instead of anticipating intuitively where the Canadian’s kill shots would go, and appeared overwhelmed by the moment. 

On the men’s side, the team of big Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena ran into trouble right away when Dalhausser was put into quarantine because of close contact with fellow American player Taylor Crabb, who tested positive for Covid-19 and withdrew from the Olympics in favor of Tri Bourne. Then Dalhausser and Lucena made it through pool play but lost Sunday in the first round of knock-out play. 

Gibb and Bourne advanced to the Round of 16, but were then eliminated by the German team of  Clemens Wickler and Julius Thole, in three sets, 17-21, 21-15, 15-11.

So the American medal hopes are riding squarely on the shoulders of the A Team, who defeated the Swiss Wednesday evening and will play Australia in the gold medal match.

Don’t cry for the team of Sponcil and Claes. They are both young and will have more Olympic chances in the future. But Dalhausser is 41 and has indicated this is probably his last Olympic Games.

No matter who does or doesn’t come home with a medal of any kind – gold, silver or bronze — all eight players are expected to participate in the Manhattan Beach Open, which will be held August 20-22. 

They are sure to get a huge ovation from the overflow crowd hungry to make up for the MB Open that was canceled last summer.

 

What the hell was Rob Pelinka thinking?

Or maybe he wasn’t he thinking.

Maybe he just wanted to make a big media splash, excite Lakers fans who were starting to think the 2020 title was a pandemic fluke in the Florida bubble, and sell some tickets in the process. 

That’s what it looks like from the beach city division of Laker Nation. 

Pelinka is the Lakers General Manager who just made the stunning move of bringing point guard Russell Westbrook home from Washington, DC to Los Angeles to create an alleged big three of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Westbrook.

Trouble is, it’s not really a big 3.

It’s more like a big two and a half, at best.

At worst, it creates a chaotic, unmanageable mess for Head Coach Frank Vogel, who enters the third and last year of his contract without any sign of an extension on the horizon. If this crazy trade – the Lakers sent the Wizards their first-round draft pick plus three valuable role players in Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – backfires, guess who’s headed for the unemployment line?

Not Pelinka.

Vogel.

Start with the most basic problem with this mindless, huge-risk-small-reward trade: Westbrook is a terrible fit with LeBron and AD. Indeed, it’s hard to think of an NBA player – scrub or star — less suited to play with the Lakers two superstars.

After the Lakers first round flameout in the playoffs, everyone in the league knew the Lakers most pressing need was shooting. In particular, long-range shooting. 

The Lakers needed somebody – anybody – to knock down open shots from mid-range and 3-point land once LeBron had penetrated and drawn multiple defenders. Or when AD had backed his defender down into the lane, got double-teamed, and started looking for someone on the perimeter who was open.

So what does Pelinka do? He trades for a guy who has shot 30 percent on three-point shots over the course of his 13-year career. The league average is 36 percent.

And Westbrook’s shot selection is legendarily bad. Whether he’s hot or cold, he just keeps firing away and jacking up shots while ignoring the angry looks from his teammates. He has connected on 43 percent of his shots – meaning he has missed almost six out of every 10 shots he has taken. 

Even worse, he’s a ball-dominant player who just stands around and sulks when he doesn’t have the ball. Now, it’s true that over the last couple of seasons, he has piled up assists. But most of those assists are the same kind LeBron generates: last-second passes to open shooters after he has bum-rushed the hoop and drawn a small posse of defenders. Coaches call it the 3-D approach: drive to the hoop, draw multiple defenders, and dish the ball to an open man for an easy, uncontested shot.

Trouble is, the Lakers needed someone who shoots 40 percent or better on threes, a catch-and-shoot guy — not a dribble, dribble, dribble guy who will pass only when he has no other option.

They needed someone like Sacramento’s Buddy Hield, a sharp-shooter who has made it clear he wants to leave the sad-sack Kings. Sacramento – and coach Luke Walton — have made it equally clear they want to offload the unhappy Hield if they can get anything close to equal value for the sixth pick in the 2016 draft, a deadeye marksman who fits the Lakers needs perfectly.

To his credit, Pelinka had explored a deal for Hield with the Kings, dangling Kuzma and Harrell as his opening bid. Sacramento was so eager to make the deal that Kuzma and Harrell – who both need a fresh start somewhere else – were sure they were headed to NorCal.

At the very last minute, the day before the trade was supposed to be announced, Pelinka took the offer off the table. The Kings were shocked at the sudden reversal, the players involved were stunned, and 24 hours later the news behind the news broke: the Lakers were bringing the soon-to-be-33-year-old Westbrook and his $44 million per year contract to LA.

It was billed as a home-coming for Westbrook, who grew up in Hawthorne, starred at Lawndale Leuzinger High School, was a last-second recruit at UCLA, and then improved so rapidly that by the end of his sophomore year Oklahoma City made him the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft. 

In OKC he was teamed with future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant. Even though Westbrook is only 6-foot-3, his sheer physical talent, leaping ability, relentless motor and unmatched competitive drive were so powerful that he became a perennial All-Star. With James Harden also on the roster, the Thunder was poised to dominate the league for the next decade with a Big Three of Durant, Westbrook and Harden.

It never happened, although they did make it to the 2012 NBA Finals, where LeBron and the Heat knocked them out.

But then the penny-pinching, small-market Thunder unloaded Harden to Houston for pennies on the dollar – the single worst trade in NBA history – and Durant began to grow more and more frustrated waiting for Westbrook to throw him the ball so he could shoot it. When you’re the best pure shooter in the league, watching a bad shooter like Westbrook hog the ball gets old quickly.

Eventually Durant had enough of Westbrook’s solo act. He left for Golden State, where he finally won two NBA titles.

So Westbrook couldn’t fit in with the second-best player in the league.

Strike one.

Then Westbrook was unable to have playoff success with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, the two new star players OKC brought in to replace the firepower lost when Durant left.

Strike two.

Finally OKC traded him to Houston in exchange for Chris Paul. Westbrook and James Harden both said they were reunited and it feels so good. Sharing the ball would be no problem. But the good vibes didn’t last because of the same old problem: Westbrook is ball dominant, Harden is ball dominant, and neither was willing to take on a new role.

Again, Westbrook was unable to fit in any role other than the one he had always played: alpha dog.

Strike three.

So last year Houston traded him to the Washington Wizards, where he was supposedly a better fit with star guard Bradley Beal, a great shooter who doesn’t need the ball all the time. But that didn’t work out either, and Beal soon started talking about needing to be traded to a new team.

Strike four.

All that Beal trade talk stopped this week when the Wizards were thrilled to find a taker for Westbrook and his huge, salary-cap clogging salary with two years left on his deal. Now the Lakers will be Westbrook’s fourth team in the last four seasons – and they owe him $88 million over the next two seasons.

Pelinka wants Lakers fans to think that this time it will be different. He even orchestrated a media leak about a supposedly top-secret meeting at LeBron’s $20 million Brentwood mansion two weeks ago between LeBron, AD and Westbrook.

Surprise, surprise: the big takeaway from the star summit was that this time all Westbrook cared about was winning a title before his career is over. This time he would be happy to let LeBron control the ball, to let AD be the second option, and to take whatever table scraps came his way.

Oh, and best of all he would be able to take on the ball handling duties whenever LeBron was out of the game or just plain tired of initiating the offense all the time.

That’s the only part of the trade that makes any sense at all. Data shows that whenever LeBron left the game last season, the Lakers were massively outscored. Then when he would come back in it would be an uphill battle to get the Lakers back into the game.

The Lakers offense was ranked second in the league with LeBron in the game, and 28th without him. So yes, having Westbrook available to take on that lead-dog role in LeBron’s absence probably will work. He’s not as big or strong as LeBron, and he’s not as good a shooter as LeBron. But he is a force of nature with the ball in his hands, a poor man’s LeBron without the high hoops IQ.

But the Lakers have paid a huge price – and will continue to pay a huge price for the next two years – to bring in a LeBron backup.

Long before the 51-year-old Pelinka was born, some wise man declared that trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

Bringing in Westbrook to play with LeBron and AD and expecting him to change his game, his style and his approach at this stage of his career is insane. 

Strike Five.  

And make no mistake: the Lakers wouldn’t make this trade without LeBron’s approval.

So when it blows up, as it almost surely will, don’t just blame Pelinka.

Blame LeBron, too.

LeBron knows he is in his career’s third act and needs some serious help in dragging the Lakers to another title. And he has always preferred a Big Three set-up: in Miami Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were his designated sidekicks. When he came back to Cleveland it was Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in the sidekick roles.

Now he’s reverting to a familiar pattern in the hope that it will pay off with a title once again.

All Ball has always been a huge admirer of LeBron as the greatest player in the history of the game. Greater even then Michael Jordan, because of his unselfish passing and his uncanny ability to make his teammates better.

But as a shadow General Manager, we have always had our doubts about LeBron.

Now that the blockbuster deal is done the only recourse for Lakers fans is to hope we are wrong.

To hope that this time Westbrook really means it when he says he wants to share the ball and be a team player. And to hope that Pelinka can use what little money the Lakers have left after paying the big three to find good shooters who are willing to take a below-market deal in exchange for the chance to play with LeBron, AD and Westbrook.

But for now, the obvious question hangs in the air like one of those airplane banners that fly over the beach on a Sunday afternoon: What the hell was Pelinka thinking?

Clippers start a week of waiting and worrying

Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard made his decision known Monday morning: he is declining his $36 million option to stay with the team this season. That made him an unrestricted free agent.

Now he has another decision to make: sign a longer, more lucrative contract with the Clips or shop around and see what other teams are willing to offer him.

While he and other free agents can hold discussions with other teams as of Monday afternoon, they are not allowed to sign a new contract until Friday, August 6.

That means the Clippers and their fans, already wracked with angst over his surgery last month for a partial ACL tear in his right knee, now have to worry over whether he’s leaving the Clippers altogether.

As it is, he probably won’t play a minute all of next season, given the medical predictions that his surgery will require a 9 – 12-month rehab. Of course, if he signs elsewhere, then that’s some other team’s problem.

But then the Clippers’ problem will be even bigger: how do you replace a top-5 player who just led your team to the Western Conference Finals.

The harsh truth is that you don’t. You can’t. Those type of players are unicorns and rarely come on the open market.

The local media consensus is that Kawhi will be loyal to the Clippers, who have catered to his every whim, and eventually re-sign with them.

But those fans and media need to remember that Kawhi burned the San Antonio Spurs after they took him as an unknown 15th draft pick and turned him into a superstar. Then he burned the Toronto Raptors after leading them to their only NBA title two seasons ago.

And those fans who think he is sure to stay right here need to consider a juicy nugget the great Ramona Shelburne of ESPN, who has sources all over the league, let slip this weekend.

In reporting on Westbrook’s move to LA, she learned that Kawhi got a call out of the blue from Westbrook in the summer of 2019, when Kawhi was deciding where to sign once he left Toronto.

Westbrook tried to recruit Kawhi to join him in OKC, where his sidekick was Paul George, whose game and personality make him an ideal wingman, a natural born Robin to a Batman like Westbrook or Kawhi.

Instead of saying yes or no, Kawhi said he would think about it. Then, realizing there was trouble brewing in OKC, he called George and recruited him to join him on the Clippers. He then forced the Clippers to trade for George as a condition of his signing with the Clippers.

In other words, the NBA is the athletic equivalent of high school with its cliques, faux BFF’s, frenemies and after-school intrigue.

And Kawhi is the varsity quarterback dating the head cheerleader. 

Until he’s dating her best friend.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow @paulteetor. ER

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