2014 NBA Futures: Lakers still gunning for Title Next Year

la-lakers-titleLast season, the Los Angeles Lakers featured a loaded roster that seemed perfectly capable of winning the NBA Championship. But even with a team of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol, the Lakers struggled to a seventh place Western Conference finish and were promptly swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

Now the Lakers enter the 2013-14 season having lost the battle to re-sign Howard and with Bryant rehabbing his torn Achilles tendon. They also cut World Peace, who later signed with the New York Knicks. That leaves LA with the aging core of Gasol, Nash and Bryant – not exactly the chic pick to win it all next year.

Taking this into account, some people thought that the Lakers would be best served by bringing Kobe along slowly, clearing up cap space and waiting until the summer of 2014, when they could sign a big-time star like Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James. By tanking next season, the Lakers could also pick up a high pick in the talent-laden 2014 NBA Draft.

la-lakers-title-1But none of this seems to be in the cards for LA as they’ll be entering October with the same mindset as always: compete for an NBA Championship.

Bryant is rehabbing with plans to be ready for the preseason, the team signed big man Chris Kaman to a one-year, $3.2 million deal, and Nash is also healing from his injuries in hopes of playing a full season. As if these aren’t signs that LA is preparing for another shot at the title, general manager Mitch Kupchak recently said so himself.

“You know that’s not our plan. Our plan was to bring back Dwight Howard and that would have sky-rocketed our payroll,” Kupchak said, when asked about mailing in next season. “That’s never a plan here with our fan base, to throw in the towel before the season begins. We always try to win, and that’s what we’re going to do this year.

“We have challenges. There’s no doubt. We don’t know when Kobe’s coming back, and we don’t know what level he’s going to come back at, although we’re optimistic. Everything’s good with Steve. Pau should be fine. We’ve added some athleticism. We’re hopefully putting ourselves in position where we can compete in every game.”

la-lakers-title-2No NBA general manager is going to flat-out admit that they hope to be non-competitive just to pick up a high lottery pick. But there’s sincerity in what Kupchak says because the Lakers fan base has come to expect winning, and throwing an entire season away just isn’t acceptable. Plus they have some stars left over in Bryant, Gasol and Nash, who would be pretty mad if they got another year older without another playoff run.

But do the Lakers truly have a shot at winning the NBA Championship? If you were making a 2014 NBA futures bet, odds are that you wouldn’t put your money on Kobe and company. But then again, with the chemistry disaster that we witnessed between Bryant, Howard and Gasol last year, perhaps playing without Howard can only improve the Lakers’ chances next season. And even if they have another difficult, injury-riddled season, well, at least Los Angeles still remains an attractive destination for big-name free agents next summer.

James, Anthony, John Wall, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Andrea Bargnani all hit the market in 2014. And while some of these players will re-sign with their team, it’s likely that LA could land at least one of them based on location and reputation alone.

Canada: A Budding International Basketball Powerhouse

andrew-wiggins-nbaThroughout the history of international basketball competitions, Canada hasn’t exactly shined. While their American neighbors to the south have won 14 Olympic gold medals, Canada has managed just one – a sliver medal in the 1936 Olympics.

Now this isn’t to say that the Great White North has been the basketball world’s doormat. After all, they did produce 2-time NBA MVP Steve Nash along with role players like Todd MacCulloch and Samuel Dalembert. However, there just haven’t been enough talented players to bring Canada to any sort of international prominence.

But it looks like Canadians might soon have something to celebrate from a basketball perspective, based on several young players. For starters, Toronto lays claim to Andrew Wiggins, who’s the most coveted pro prospect since LeBron James. The 6’8″ small forward, who’s currently playing for West Virginia’s Huntington Prep, is the biggest reason why several teams wouldn’t mind tanking the 2013-2014 NBA season.

McDonalds All American Game- Powerade JamfestThe first thing that jumps out about Wiggins is his insane athleticism, which comes naturally when you consider his parents. Mitchell Wiggins was a former NBA player while Marita was an Olympic silver medalist. So it’s no wonder why the 18-year-old can sky over other players (44-inch vertical) and blow past his opponents with unparalleled quickness. Adding his excellent on-court skills into the equation, Wiggins is all but guaranteed to be the top pick when he finishes his freshman season at Kansas next year.

Of course, you can’t experience Olympic success without a team – especially when competing against the stacked Team USA. Luckily Wiggins has a nice future sidekick in Anthony Bennett, who recently became the first Canadian-born player to go number one overall in the NBA Draft.

Now it’s worth mentioning that Bennett was a surprise number one pick who’s not guaranteed stardom. However, the Cavaliers thought enough of the 6’7″ combo forward’s outside shooting, scoring ability and rebounding to take him with the top pick.

tristan-thompsonNext up is Bennett’s Cavaliers teammate, Tristan Thompson. These two players are a very interesting story because they grew up a mile away from each other in Toronto and went to the same US-based high school, Findlay Prep (Nevada), though not at the same time. In his second NBA season, Thompson put up very solid numbers after averaging 11.7 PPG and 9.4 RPG. The 6’8″ power forward will definitely give Team Canada a strong inside presence come Olympics time.

Another player who figures to star on the international stage is Boston Celtics rookie Kelly Olynyk. The British Columbia product starred for Gonzaga after posting averages of 17.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 1.1 BPG last year. The 7-footer also showed some outside touch after shooting 44% and 30% from the 3-point line in his two collegiate seasons.

kelly-olynykDespite questions about how his game would translate to the NBA, Olynyk has silenced the critics thus far with a very strong summer league performance. And if he keeps playing like this, he’ll no doubt have a good career in both the NBA and on the international stage.

Cory Joseph is one more Canadian who shows a lot of promise. The 6’3″ San Antonio Spurs guard improved quite a bit from his dismal rookie season to last year’s NBA Finals run. He averaged 4.5 PPG, 1.9 APG and shot 85.7% from the free-throw line in his second year.

There’s definitely plenty of reason to get excited about Canadian basketball in the future. Sure the Olympics are three years away, but the FIBA Basketball World Cup is coming up in 2014. Canada has never won a medal in this competition, which takes place every four years. But based on all of the young talent that the Great White North has coming up through the ranks, they’re certainly ready to challenge current powerhouses like the United States, Argentina, Greece and Spain next year.

How Danny Granger convinced the Pacers to draft Paul George

paul-georgeMost NBA analysts and experts fully expected the Miami Heat to run through the 2013 Playoffs and on to their second straight title. But there’s just one holdup so far: the Indiana Pacers are giving the Heat a huge fight and have tied the Eastern Conference Finals series at 2-2.

Pacers forward Paul George is a huge reason behind why Indiana is playing Miami so tough right now. He’s displayed the same all-around game against the Heat that he has throughout the entire 2013 regular season. What’s more is that George has even given LeBron James some difficulties on both ends of the floor. Interestingly enough, none of this may have happened if not for currently injured Pacers star Danny Granger.

Back in 2010, before the NBA Draft, former Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird was trying to decide whether or not he should select George. After all, the Fresno State product was still a relatively unknown entity, despite playing two solid years of college ball. Plus Indiana had the 10th pick in the 2010 Draft and didn’t want to take a leap of faith on an unproven talent.

paul-george-pacersAt the time, Granger was working out with George and had some inside knowledge of the prospect. And the two had a connection since they shared an agent in Aaron Mintz. So Bird called Granger in an effort to find out what his opinion was of George, but hadn’t gotten a call back.

So Mintz phoned Granger to convince his client to talk things over with Bird. As Sports Illustrated journalist Lee Jenkins wrote, the three-way conversation went something like this:

Mintz asked George, “Where do you want to go in the draft tomorrow?”
“Indiana,” George replied.

“Why?” Mintz asked.

“I think I can learn so much from Danny.”

Mintz hung up on George and asked Granger, “Can you call Bird now?”

Despite the fact that they both played the same position, Granger complied with Mintz’s request and gave a “glowing recommendation” of the fellow small forward. He would eventually tell Bird that George would be an All-Star by his third season – something which few other people around the league could’ve predicted.

danny-grangerHowever, Granger’s bold prophecy didn’t look very accurate in the beginning. As a rookie, George was a reserve who was mainly called upon for his stingy defense. He averaged a modest 20.7 MPG, 7.8 PPG, 1.0 SPG and 3.7 RPG.

George showed some definite improvement in his second season and blossomed in a starting role. He averaged 12.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG and 1.6 SPG while also shotting 38.5% from the 3-point line.

But this year is when George has truly stepped into a starring role. He made the All-Star team on the strength of 17.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 4.1 APG and 1.8 SPG. Granted, George has done this in a year where Granger has been sidelined all but five games with an injury; however, he’s still turned in a very impressive season.

And no matter how the current series against the Heat finishes out, the Pacers definitely have to be happy about Danny Granger making that phone call before the 2010 Draft.