Kevin Cody

All Ball Sports: Lakers score while Clippers snore

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The Lakers signed Marc Gasol, a former Defensive Player of the Year, two-time All-Star and the younger brother of former Laker star Pau Gasol. Photo courtesy of the Lakers

by Paul Teetor

The NBA Champion Lakers got better.

The NBA Champion Chokers – aka the Clippers — got worse.

That was the bottom line following a frenetic weekend of deal-making that began when the NBA’s free agency period opened for business Friday night. By Monday night more than 50 players had switched teams in deals ranging from the veteran minimum of $1.4 million for one year to the guaranteed $120 million over four years that the Atlanta Hawks used to pry oft-injured, one-time All-star Gordon Hayward away from the Boston Celtics.

And there are still plenty more players available on the open market. That means the Paper Clips could still get better, but the store shelves are almost empty and they’ll have to settle for picked-over produce.

The immediate hours after the starting gun went off at 6 p.m. were stunning for Lakers fans, who watched as a parade of grizzled veterans who had enhanced their market value just by being part of a championship team abruptly departed for greener fields.

Of course most of them will never have a better season than the one they just had because of the opportunity to play with LeBron James. But that’s a reality their new teams will have to confront and Lakers fans won’t have to worry about any more.

In rapid fashion Lakers fans watched Rajon Rondo – who snoozes during the regular season and shines in the playoffs – take his defiant attitude and motor-mouth jawing to Atlanta; Avery Bradley take his elite defensive talents and 3-point shooting to Miami; all-time knuckle-head Dwight Howard takes his fake-tough-guy act to Philly; and three-time NBA champion Danny Green, who faded badly in the playoffs after a good regular season, get traded to Oklahoma City as part of a three-way deal. 

The double-barreled loss of Rondo and Bradley was tough to absorb at first, because both are among the best backcourt defenders in the entire league. But the Lakers and General Manager Rob Pelinka moved quickly to fill the void, first by luring free-agent guard Wesley Matthews, a bigger-stronger version of Bradley, from the Milwaukee Bucks. Then they completed their back-court reconstruction project by getting slick point guard Dennis Schroeder in exchange for Green and re-signing their own free agent, perimeter bomber and suffocating defender Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. 

On balance, and especially considering Rondo’s indifferent performance during the regular season, it was a significant upgrade.         

And they did an even better job of replacing Howard, the former Orlando Magic super-star center turned unwanted journeyman who will now be joining his eighth team in the last 8 years. He was only on the Lakers because he agreed to a non-guaranteed minimum contract last season and promised he would do only what the Lakers told him to do, which was to rebound, play tough defense and stay out of LeBron’s way when the Lakers had the ball.

But Howard, who called himself Superman back in the day when he was a dominant player but stopped that when he joined up with a real NBA Superman named LeBron, demonstrated on his way out the door just what a screwball he has always been. When you’re a great player, you’re called fun-loving. But when you’re just a scrub the same behavior gets you called a wingnut – or worse.

The craziness started Friday night when Howard posted a tweet about how much he loved playing for the Lakers and what an honor and privilege it is.

“I’m staying right where I belong. Laker Nation I love ya’ll,” Howard said. “Purple and Gold never gets old.”

Less than a minute later he took the tweet down. Five minutes later the news broke that he had just signed a two-year contract with the 76ers. Money talks and Howard walks. 

Pelinka wasted no time letting Howard know he could easily be replaced by announcing that the Lakers had signed the Clippers’ gritty, ferocious center Montrezl Harrell, last season’s NBA sixth man of the year.

The contrast could not be starker: Harrell plays hard every night, Howard plays hard every other night. Harrell plays smart every night, Howard plays dumb most nights. Harrell is a real tough guy, Howard is a fake tough guy. And finally, after Harrell called Dallas superstar Luka Doncic a “bitch-ass white boy” in a playoff game, he had the stand-up-guy character to apologize to Doncic before the next game. It’s hard to imagine Howard ever doing that.

And finally, Harrell is six years younger and just entering his prime. Howard exited his prime eight years ago when he left the Lakers after one year and flopped, in order, at Houston, Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, before begging to re-join the Lakers.

Sunday night the Lakers up-graded their center position even more by arranging a trade to dump their other center, JaVale McGee, almost as big a goof-ball as Howard, to free up cap space. Then they signed Marc Gasol, a former Defensive Player of the Year, two-time All-Star and the younger brother of former Laker star Pau Gasol.

Taken together, all those savvy roster moves in the space of 48 hours shows just how far the Lakers have come since the days not so long ago when Buss family burnout Jimmy Buss was calling the shots and thought he had pulled off a coup when he signed as free agents  a totally washed-up Luol Deng and a big white Russian stiff named Timofey Mozgov. Current Lakers president Jeannie Buss eventually got fed up with her brother’s bungling and cut him loose when he tried to undercut her in a complex family drama not worth rehashing here.      

Laker fans are still anxiously waiting to see what happens with the Lakers own prize free agent, superstar forward Anthony Davis. But as All Ball predicted last month after the Lakers won their first NBA title in a decade, there is zero chance he will sign anywhere else. He knows he will never have a better partner than LeBron and he’d be crazy to leave when the apparently ageless LeBron appears poised for a late-career run of championships. The only question is how many millions the Lakers will throw at him and how long the contact will be for.

Clippers get Thanksgiving leftovers

Meanwhile, the Clippers lost Harrell and versatile forward JaMychal Green, a good defender and accurate 3-point shooter.  After that they signed shooting guard Luke Kennard, who never lived up to his 12th overall draft spot, and Serge Ibaka, who used to be one of the premier defenders and rebounders in the league but over the years morphed into a 3-point bomber. At age 31, he’s well past his prime years.

Oh, and they also re-signed their own free agent, locker-room cancer Marcus Morris, another fake tough guy who was the source of much of the team’s playoff friction that led to the Clippers stunning second-round loss to the Nuggets.

Indeed, the Clippers biggest off-season move was firing Coach Doc Rivers after he blew a 3-1 playoff lead over the Denver Nuggets, making him the first coach in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead in three different playoff series.

Within a week he had signed on as the new coach in Philadelphia, a job he took only after being assured he would have control over the roster. One of the self-inflicted problems Rivers had in LA when he had complete control of the team was that he signed his son, journeyman guard Austin Rivers. It was a risky move that backfired when some players, including team leader Chris Paul, complained that he was giving his son more playing time than he deserved. That little dispute was one reason among many that Paul eventually left for the Rockets.

So what’s the first thing Rivers does when he takes over personnel decisions in Philly? He signs his son-in-law, sharp-shooting Seth Curry, away from the Dallas Mavericks. Some people never learn from their mistakes. Nepotism is never a good idea – just ask Donald Trump, who put his son-in-law in charge of his re-election effort.

The Clippers most glaring need entering the off-season was a starting-level point guard. Patrick Beverly is a fierce defender and in many ways the beating heart of the Clippers, but he is not a traditional floor general and is not built to get stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George their preferred shots in their preferred places on the court. Unless and until the Clippers obtain an upper-level starting point guard, their off-season moves deserve at best a D+ while the Lakers get an A+.

Incredibly, the new NBA season starts on Dec. 22, less than a month from now. That’s when the real grades on all these moves will reveal themselves.

Goff, Rams get their mojo back

Two weeks after their worst game of the season, a 28-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins in which quarterback Jared Goff threw two picks and fumbled twice, the Rams posted their second straight, high-quality win Monday night with a 27-24 thriller over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At 7-3 they are well on their way to a playoff spot and a potential return to the Super Bowl.

Coach Sean McVay used an identical strategy that helped the Rams beat Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks last week: rely on your great defense to suffocate an explosive offense led by a great quarterback. Then use everything in your big playbook – mis-direction, play-action, run/pass option plays – to put Goff in position to succeed with short and medium range passes. Goff responded with one of the best games in his five-year Rams career. He completed 39 of 51 passes for 376 yards and three TD’s, coming within one completion of the passing record for Monday Night Football, which has been the NFL’s weekly showcase for more than 50 years. Receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods caught everything that came their way.  

Goff badly outplayed the great Tom Brady, who for this one game at least looked every bit like a 43-year-old has-been who can’t keep up with the kids on either team. 

Both Goff and Brady had two interceptions, and Goff threw in a fumble for good measure (which he recovered.) But in the key endgame moments Goff was able to drive the Rams down the field to score a field goal with just over two minutes left while Brady came up empty.

The stage was set for a classic Tom Brady comeback with a last second winning score. And in the old days that almost surely would have happened. But on this night Brady badly overthrew a wide-open receiver, the ball was intercepted, and that was the ballgame right there.

Bad habits are hard to break

The Chargers have developed a bad habit during this snake-bit season of roaring out to huge leads fueled by some incredible passing feats by rookie sensation Justin Herbert, only to lose the leads – and the games – in the last seconds as they tried to sit on the lead instead of adding to it.

Head coach Anthony Lynn’s excessive caution almost cost the Chargers yet another loss, this time to the woeful New York Jets in a game they eventually won by a scary-close score of 34-28.

But the pattern as the game unfolded was all too familiar: Herbert connected on 17 of his first 18 passes for two TD’s and a 24-6 lead. Then came the second half, and Lynn once again played not to lose by going conservative in his play calling rather than playing to win and riding Herbert’s hot hand. And once again the big lead shrank until it was 31-20 entering the fourth quarter.  The Jets closed to within 34-28 and were driving toward a game-winning TD when an interception near the goal line stopped them.

Of course, taking any solace from a win over the low-flying Jets is foolish, since they are the only winless team in the league at 0-10. Frankly, while their players played hard, it felt like their coaches and management were more interested in losing another game to help assure they will get the first overall draft pick next year and a shot at Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, the sure-fire #1 pick if he chooses to leave school for the draft, which he almost surely will. 

But no matter how good Lawrence turns out to be as a pro, he couldn’t have a better rookie season than the one Herbert is having. He has already set a host of rookie records, and added some more Sunday when he connected on 37 of 49 passes for 366 yards, three TD’s and zero interceptions.

Herbert now has five 3-TD games and seven in a row with at least two TD’s, both NFL rookie records. He totaled 277 yards in the first half, the most by a rookie in the last 40 years. He also had his league-leading sixth completion of at least 50 yards when he hit Tyron Johnson for 54 yards in the second quarter. Not coincidentally, wide receiver Keenan Allen, Herbert’s favorite target all year, finished with a franchise record 16 catches for 145 yards.

Maybe the Chargers can use this victory to jump-start a winning streak. But no matter how the season unfolds from here, one thing is crystal clear: barring a serious injury, the Bolts have their franchise quarterback for the next decade and beyond.

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

 

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