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Hollinger: Is In-Season Tournament one of LeBron’s last shots at glory? Plus, Vegas predictions

The Athletic has live coverage of Lakers vs Suns in the quarterfinal of the NBA In-Season Tournament.

When the idea of an In-Season Tournament first came up, one of the ideas was that it would be a secondary prize that might be claimed by a team that wasn’t a true title contender. A nice chit for some forlorn outposts like Sacramento or Indiana or New Orleans to actually win something and hang a banner, even if their odds of prevailing in June seemed paper-thin.

But what if it’s the place for LeBron James to do the same?

Let’s back up a little bit. Last week, I went to Philadelphia and saw James’ team lose a game by 44 points. What made it particularly shocking was that James was actually playing, and trying, and so were the other three key players (Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell) who represent the bulk of the Los Angeles Lakers’ claim to legitimate contention.

James turns 39 at the end of the month, and he’s still an awesome player: averaging a 24-7-6 triple crown line on 63.9 percent true shooting, ranking 11th in the league in PER and seventh in BPM through Saturday’s games and — regardless of whatever half-hearted attempts at load restrictions are being attempted — ranking 16th in total minutes.

But there are levels of awesome, and James is no longer the guy in Cleveland who could drag literally any other four players to 50 wins. You might say the Lakers have spent the last two years proving that point a little too clearly. Last Monday in Philly, James tried his best for three quarters, especially in a late second-quarter run that cut a 25-point lead to 15 and briefly gave the Lakers hope. He came back from halftime and delivered two baskets and an assist in the first two minutes of the third quarter to make it an 11-point game. “OK, here we go,” thoughts murmured through the crowd, as you could almost feel James trying to take over the game.

Except … he couldn’t. The Lakers were down 20 within three minutes and never in the game again.



How good are the Lakers after 20 games? Even they don’t know

It was only one game in November, sure, but it signified something larger in my mind. Contending teams don’t lose by 44 points with their top players available. (I know the Lakers have some injuries, but these have been to secondary players. Jarred Vanderbilt and Gabe Vincent aren’t changing the big-picture trajectory here, folks.) As if to prove the point, LA lost by 23 in Oklahoma City three nights later.

At 12-9 through Saturday, the Lakers are hardly atrocious — they’re actually on pace to win more games than a season ago. But with a negative scoring margin against a relatively soft early schedule, it’s hard to envision this team contending for anything important. Injuries to secondary players are a lame excuse when they’ve had the most important ones available every night: James and Davis have played 20 of their 21 games, and Reaves and Russell all 21. When it comes to contending, they’re not good enough, and there probably isn’t a move left on the chessboard to change that.

This takes us to the tournament quarterfinals this week. Over the last two years, one of the thoughts that’s gone through my head whenever I’ve seen James play in person is, “How many more?” As in, how many more times will I get to see the GOAT 2.0 operate in the flesh? And in particular, how many more times will I get to see him play, still, at such an elite level? I think about it a little when I see Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry too, but the thought hits more urgently now when I’m in the building for LeBron. Watching him unable to stop his team from getting boat-raced last week drove that point home a bit more emphatically.

Beyond that, however, there’s a second question with James that we might ask even more urgently: How many more times will we get to see him in a big game, one with real consequences? Even last season, his Lakers rallied to the Western Conference finals after a forgettable regular season. But the West looks much stronger this season, and James is a year older. While it’s mind-blowing what he’s able to do at age 38 (this is an argument to be made under separate cover, but he’s almost certainly the best old guy in the history of the NBA), the soft underbelly part of that statement is the “age 38” part.

The Lakers around him aren’t some juggernaut on the rise either; Davis is 29 and hasn’t played more than 62 games in a season since 2017-18. The other key players are in their primes, but there is no young phenom on the roster ready to raise the Lakers’ ceiling, and they’re unlikely to pick high enough to get one in the immediate future. (Even if they did, New Orleans, with an option to take LA’s pick in either 2024 or 2025, would just snatch it away.) The siren song of cap space is unlikely to deliver a savior on the Lakers’ doorstep either; today’s league is all about getting the bag now, via a contract extension, and demanding a trade later. Again, it’s not that the Lakers are a bad team; it’s just that there seems to be no clear way for them to catch up to the Denvers and Bostons of the league, let alone stay level with teams like the Sixers and Thunder that blew them away last week.

Here’s what I’m getting at: If we’re being honest with ourselves, there’s a decent-to-good chance that we’ve already seen LeBron James play in late May for the final time, which means Tuesday’s game against Phoenix — a winnable one at home against a club the Lakers have already beaten twice — might be among the most meaningful ones left in his career.



NBA has played the calendar game perfectly with trade season, Christmas looming

A win sends James to Las Vegas in a tournament semifinal with another friendly pairing, against either Sacramento or New Orleans. As a conference championship of sorts for the In-Season Tournament, it’s likely the biggest game of LA’s season. (Side note: The Lakers will plan as if I’m wrong about this, and they should. You don’t put a James-Davis tandem together and not chase a title. But I’m handicapping the Western Conference horse race here, and it ain’t looking real good for Win or Place.)

Again, a matchup with either the Kings or Pelicans would be a winnable game — amazingly, the top three teams in the West all failed to qualify for the tournament quarterfinals — especially with a “neutral site” crowd in Las Vegas that in reality should tilt 80 to 90 percent Lakers. The speedy Kings have proven a tough matchup for LA, but they have no answer for the peak version of Davis. And if it’s New Orleans, I mean, what are the odds of the Pelicans staying fully healthy for two entire games consecutively? One other advantage: The Lakers also have played in T-Mobile Arena each of the last two preseasons.

Allow yourself to imagine the Lakers winning twice, and you get potential TV magic for Adam Silver: Lakers vs. Celtics in the first In-Season Tournament final on Saturday night. Or Lakers vs. Knicks, or Lakers. vs. Bucks, or even Lakers vs. Pacers. Whatever. It’s the Lakers part that matters.

If it comes to pass that the Lakers win twice this week, the immediate hot take will be that the mere presence of LeBron playing in the final game — and taking it seriously — would help further legitimize the tournament, which already is clearly one of the best ideas the league has implemented in Silver’s tenure. Look into the future, however, and you’ll see another very real possibility: It might also provide one last chance for James to shine on a national stage with a chance at a trophy.



Partnow: NBA In-Season Tournament by the numbers, plus suggested future improvements

IST predictions

Since you asked, and since predicting single-game outcomes in a make-or-miss league is such a risk-free proposition, here’s what I’m expecting this week:

I think New Orleans beats Sacramento for the third time this season, as the Pelicans seem to have the Kings’ number. I think the Lakers just barely hold off the Suns, with the help of home-court advantage, and I think they get the best of New Orleans in a potential Anthony Davis Trade Revenge Game for the Pelicans and represent the West in the final.

In the East, you’d have to be nuts to bet against Boston, even if Kristaps Porziņģis doesn’t play. The Celtics have looked in far better form than any of the other three Eastern Conference quarterfinalists and should steamroll a Pacers team that it beat by 51 in early November and might not have Tyrese Haliburton. In the other pairing, don’t be shocked if a rock-solid Knicks team upsets a shakier-than-their-record Bucks team in Milwaukee (although it would be hilarious if a Knicks team that thought it was going to Vegas after running up the score in Charlotte in its final IST game ends up with a Milwaukee-Indiana road trip in December instead). The Knicks narrowly lost to the Bucks in a group-play game in early November, which is the reason this game is being played in Milwaukee and not New York, but the Bucks needed to double up the Knicks from the 3-point line, 20-10, to survive that one. Don’t count on the shooting-variance gods saving them like that a second time. That would set up a Knicks-Celtics semifinal in Vegas (one that would be played at 5 p.m. Eastern Time), and I would pick Boston to prevail there.

So yes, I’m going with Celtics-Lakers in the first final. (Does this count in their war for the most banners?) And if it comes down to those two, I’ll take Boston again. Anything can happen in a single-elimination tournament, but as the most complete team in the first quarter of the season, the Celtics have to be considered favorites.

Dāvis Bertāns looks to make a play during a recent game against Philadelphia. (Alonzo Adams / USA Today)

Cap Geekery: The Bertāns rewrite

In a small piece of cap news that will undoubtedly still please the nerdiest readers here, the Oklahoma City Thunder made an adjustment to the guarantee terms on Dāvis Bertāns’ contract for 2024-25.

Bertāns, who was set to make $16 million that season, had only $5 million of that amount guaranteed; however, he would trigger a full guarantee if he plays at least 61 of the Thunder’s 82 games this season. That term created an obvious incentive for the Thunder to keep his games played below 61; in what is possibly a related story, Bertāns was the only Oklahoma City player not to leave the bench in a 36-point blowout of San Antonio on Nov. 14.

Well, according to HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto, the Thunder bought themselves out of that predicament for the low sum of $250,000, upping Bertāns’ guarantee to $5.25 million for 2024-25 but removing the possibility of a full guarantee. That, in turn, frees Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault to use Bertāns as he sees fit — such as his 15-points-in-11-minutes outburst against Dallas on Saturday that ended up being crucial in a narrow Thunder win — without worrying about triggering the 61 games threshold.

As a reminder, teams are allowed to renegotiate guarantee terms in a contract regardless of the team’s cap position. This is more commonly done with March contract buyouts, where player and team agree to reduce the guarantee amount and then the player is waived, or in July when teams and players sometimes agree to push back guarantee trigger dates to accommodate other roster moves. This maneuver was more unusual, altering the guarantee terms in a future season to reduce uncertainty on both sides.

If you’re wondering whether Bertāns would have played the 61 games in an alternate universe with a different contract, it’s certainly possible. Bertāns has some value on a Thunder roster that is thin on frontcourt depth, especially with prospects Aleksej Pokuševski and Ousmane Dieng still appearing unready, so it’s not out of the question that he could command a back-end rotation spot the rest of the season. While his contract also makes him obvious trade bait as an outgoing salary match, the salary adjustment also makes it seem a bit more likely such a move would happen after the season than while it’s in progress.

Prospect of the Week: Baye Ndongo, 6-9 freshman, PF/C, Georgia Tech

Ndongo was a four-star recruit, but heading into Saturday’s game against Duke, he wasn’t circled as a player for scouts to get out and see as a potential one-and-done. Well, he sure as hell is now. Ndongo had 21 points and five blocks and was clearly the best player on the court as Georgia Tech upset Duke 72-68.

It helps that I saw Ndongo on the right day: He had seven turnovers in his first college game and struggled in the Yellow Jackets’ win over Mississippi State earlier in the week. Nonetheless, he was a freshman playing his third college game against a top-10 team, was matched up against a preseason All-American in Duke’s Kyle Filipowski and totally owned the matchup.

What stood out in particular was Ndongo’s ability to play as a modern roller in an NBA offense, with threatening gravity as a dunker, some finishing craft (including a nice lefty lay-in on the move around two defenders) and the ability to dump off to a cutter if his lane is blocked. Here’s a rim-run for the game’s go-head basket:

Ndongo is a bit undersized for an NBA five, although he may grow or fill out more. However, he also flashed some interesting perimeter skill that will warrant further study from scouts: He opened the game with a corner 3, which set up a play in the second half where he faked Filipowski out of his shoes and then drove baseline for a monstrous dunk:

(Also: Check out the business decision by Duke’s Caleb Foster once he saw how high Ndongo’s elevator went.)

Ndongo’s motor on the defensive end also stood out. The reel below contains a montage of his greatest hits from Saturday, but note in particular his chase-down block on Duke’s Jared McCain in the third clip, a where-the-hell-did-he-come-from rejection that ignited a Tech break the other way:

In the half court, Ndongo was able to block shots under control, using verticality around the rim at an advanced level for a player of this age; he was also able to swallow up the 7-foot Filipowski in the basket area despite his size disadvantage and could stay with Duke’s guards on switches.

This was one game, and Ndongo will require a season-long evaluation, but in a season when virtually every hyped draft prospect has thus far been a crushing disappointment, Ndongo is a rare flash of good news as a prospect exceeding expectations early.

Tech’s schedule includes several tough matchups in the ACC (not to mention a noon Saturday matinee in New York against Penn State that will now attract Northeast-based scouts like a moth to flame), so we’ll have plenty of time to figure out exactly where he fits into the 2024 draft picture, including whether he’s a true one-and-done or needs more time.

What’s clear already, however, is that he’s on the board. By my informal count, there were only three NBA scouts in the building in Atlanta on Saturday. I’m guessing that won’t happen again this season.



Can Damon Stoudamire return once-proud Georgia Tech to relevance?

It’s time to talk about the “other” rookie center. While Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama deservedly hog the headlines, Lively hasn’t exactly been chopped liver thus far.

The 12th pick in the draft after the Mavs traded down two spots to unload the previously mentioned Bertāns, Dallas saw the full vision of Lively in the middle in Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma City. While the Mavericks fell to the Thunder (partly because Bertāns scored 15 points on five true shooting attempts, ironically), Lively finished with 20 points on 9-of-9 shooting and added 16 rebounds and seven blocks.

The thing that stood out in particular was the “9” part. Getting Lively to shoot nine times in a basketball game hasn’t been an easy endeavor; in 34 games at Duke, he achieved that total exactly once, and the same applied to his first 16 games as a Maverick.

Thus, the most encouraging plays by Lively weren’t the lob dunks he was spoon-fed by Luka Dončić — although Lively’s aerial threat is among the league’s best and a skill the Mavs have lacked in recent years — but rather the drives he made from near the 3-point line when the Thunder were double-teaming Dončić at half court.

Check out this play, for instance, where Lively catches on the short roll and makes a hard drive to the basket and finishes over a smaller defender.

No big deal, you might think, except his pattern to date has been to reflexively stop at the free-throw line and look to kick back out to the wing. Look at the Thunder defenders cheating on the expectation he’ll do just that. Lively paused for a moment after his catch to make sure Cason Wallace wasn’t going to stay with him then went down Main Street for the bucket.

Lively made virtually the same play a few minutes later as part of the Mavs’ mammoth 30-0 fourth-quarter run to get back in the game, except he spiced it up with a left-handed finish around a contest from Jalen Williams. Earlier in the game, he went brute force on a similar play and joined the very small fraternity of players who have gotten the better of Holmgren at rim:

In terms of rim protection, Lively also has been an asset, and he does it while still having the feet to handle perimeter matchups. His 5.2 percent block rate on the season ranks 11th in the NBA; Saturday’s haul included a couple that combined the feet to slide with a smaller player and the length to bottle up his shot at the rim. Here, for instance, he gets Josh Giddey on the first play of the game.

Williams got isolated against Lively in a transition matchup a few minutes later and thought he’d be able to cook. Uhhh, no. This is tremendous work by a big guy to dissuade a 3-point attempt without overcommitting, cut off a driving lane and obliterate the shot attempt without fouling:

In a 2023 draft class that has been, shall we way, slow to gather steam beyond top-two picks Wembanyama and Brandon Miller, Lively has been one of the few to stand out and clearly exceed his draft position in the first quarter of the season.

I’d argue he was an important pick too, as having a 19-year-old lob threat and rim protector of this caliber is a pretty solid inducement to keeping Dončić happy in Dallas long term. You can see the need he fills (and the paucity of other options for Dallas) in the on-off data: Even as a teenager still learning his craft, Lively has the biggest on-off differential on the Mavs.

Saturday’s game also presented another potential step forward. The biggest gap in Lively’s game thus far has been his reluctance to shoot; if he can sprinkle in aggressive finishes off one dribble that leverage his size and leaping ability, the Mavs could have a major home run with this pick.

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(Top photo of LeBron James: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

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