NBA Buy or Sell: Lakers will rely on defense to win championship; Jusuf Nurkic will help Blazers make playoffs

We’re getting to the point of the NBA season where teams are itching for the postseason to start. As spots get locked up, the playoff picture comes more into focus with each game, and we can get a sense of what matchups will exist in the first round. Some teams are catching fire at the right time, while others are stumbling down the standings as the door to the playoffs closes with each loss. 

There are plenty of storylines around the league that include injured star players returning, teams making statement wins and even more coaching changes. Let’s break down some of the stories that bubbled up to the surface in the NBA and figure out what’s real and what’s not.

Buy or Sell: Lakers have championship-caliber defense

Without a wealth of depth on the Lakers roster, this team has relied upon two things all season: LeBron James and Anthony Davis on offense, and the NBA’s third-ranked defense. They rank in the top five of most defensive statistical categories, including blocks (6.9) and steals (8.6) per game, while holding teams to just 34.2 percent from 3-point range, which ranks fourth in the league. Their defense has won them many games over the course of the season, but none more important than the two statement wins the Lakers picked up in the past few days over the Bucks and Clippers.

On Friday against the Bucks, LeBron James took on the incredibly tall task of guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo when Davis got in early foul trouble. While the reigning MVP still popped off for 32 points, only five of those came against LeBron. The Lakers defense neutralized the players around Giannis. Khris Middleton went 2 for 10 from deep, finishing with just 12 points and Eric Bledsoe was held to 11 points. As a team, the Bucks shot an abysmal 27.9 percent from 3. Milwaukee prides itself on having numerous players Giannis can rely on when he can’t find his shot. Instead, the Lakers forced the Bucks into 20 turnovers, way above their 6.8 per game average. LeBron and Davis didn’t get help on offense from their teammates per usual, but they made up for it on the defensive end. JaVale McGee and Danny Green, for example, scored a total of 11 points yet also finished with five steals combined. 

Following their impressive win over the NBA’s best team, the Lakers beat the Clippers 112-103 on Sunday afternoon, this time slowing down their usually-potent bench unit. Avery Bradley scored a season-high 24 points, while LeBron and A.D. combined for 58 points, but the defense was the X-factor for the purple and gold once again. By being in the right place at the right time, Bradley forced a couple of turnovers, played tight defense on Kawhi Leonard and finished the game with a team-high plus-13. The Clippers bench was held to 37 points — below their usual 51.3 points a game — and the Lakers finally got over the hump by beating their Staples Center neighbors for the first time this season.

The Lakers haven’t been able to get consistent offensive performances from their supporting cast all season, and that will likely continue in the playoffs. However, those two wins against top title-contending teams showed that their defense is going to be where LeBron’s Lakers hang their hats this postseason. Both games were tightly contested, and it was because of the lockdown defense played by several players — not just LeBron and A.D. — that decided these games. That should be an encouraging sign for the Lakers if they meet these two teams again in the playoffs. 

Verdict: Buy

Buy or Sell: Kyrie Irving is to blame for Kenny Atkinson losing Nets job

Brooklyn shocked the NBA world by firing head coach Kenny Atkinson over the weekend, and as reports began to surface over why, some of the blame is being thrown at Nets star point guard Kyrie Irving. Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports reported that Irving “soured” on Atkinson, and would like to see his former head coach Ty Lue take over in Brooklyn. Also in the report, Atkinson wasn’t “fond” of the idea of coaching Irving and Kevin Durant based on what he saw this season, so he wanted out just as much as the Nets did. 

Irving has a reputation for stirring drama wherever he goes. He wanted out in Cleveland because he didn’t want to play in LeBron’s shadow and he repeatedly called out his teammates during his time in Boston. He also hasn’t been able to stay healthy long enough to make any of that drama worth it. So, of course, all eyes are on Irving after this latest bit of turmoil, but to be honest, there were warning signs early on that this marriage between Irving, Durant and Atkinson wasn’t going to work.

Back in October, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan wrote an in-depth piece on the Brooklyn Nets and how this franchise went from scrappy underdog to a free agent destination. In it, she details the first couple years of Atkinson’s tenure and how he built up the Nets culture, as well as trying to bring K.D. and Irving into that fold. There were tidbits in there that mentioned Irving wasn’t fond of some of the training regimens that the Nets mandate for their players.

The Nets were delighted when their new power trio organized summer workouts for the team at a Los Angeles middle school in July and August. The aim was to develop chemistry and learn each other’s tendencies on the court. It was going swimmingly until Brooklyn dispatched its performance team to Santa Monica for an annual two-day minicamp with the players, which involved, among other things, gathering biometric data through wearables. Irving, who has spent the past nine years working with his own performance specialist, Robin Pound, balked.

When the Nets gently urged him to participate, he didn’t mince words: “I’m not doing it.” It created an awkward moment, team sources say, for incumbent players who had benefited from the performance staff and ingrained that input into their routine.

Atkinson later points out in the article that the Nets are run like a college team in terms of how programmed their scheduling is for the players. In Cleveland, John Beilein resigned amid poor chemistry between him and the players because his approach was reportedly “too college-y”. That might work for guys like Caris LeVert and Joe Harris, who need to be developed and haven’t won NBA championships, but trying to force that on superstar players like K.D. and Irving isn’t going to have the same affect. Those guys have routines that they’ve stuck to their entire careers, and coming in trying to change that likely isn’t going to go over well. Atkinson was able to build the Nets culture into a place where superstars wanted to come and play, but that doesn’t mean he was the right guy to lead a team with superstars on it. Atkinson even said to Nets general manager Sean Marks that “my voice is not what it once was here,” signaling his time building up the franchise was done and it was time for someone else to take over. Irving isn’t blameless, but based on everything that’s been reported it just didn’t sound like a good fit for Atkinson in Brooklyn anymore.

Verdict: Sell

Buy or Sell: Jusuf Nurkic’s return will push Trail Blazers into playoffs

As of Monday afternoon, the Portland Trail Blazers are currently 4 1/2 games behindf the Memphis Grizzlies for the final spot in the playoffs out West. They’ve gone 3-7 in their last 10 games, including losses to the Kings, Suns and Hawks with games against the Rockets, 76ers, Clippers and Jazz still on the horizon. Right now it looks pretty bleak for the Blazers’ chances of making the postseason, but a welcome return from 7-foot center Jusuf Nurkic could turn the tide in favor of Portland with the season winding down. Nurkic hasn’t played in nearly a year after suffering a gruesome compound leg fracture last March, but he’s set to make his long-awaited return on March 15 when Portland plays Houston. The big man had a career year last season (15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds) before it was cut short due to the leg injury, and he was essential in helping Portland win 53 games and lock up the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. 

He provided a positive impact for Portland on both ends of the floor. At his size, he could get out and defend on the wing or in the post, and on offense he was the perfect partner in the pick-and-roll game for Damian Lillard. He had soft touch around the rim and established himself as one of the best big man passers in the league as he ranked third on the team in total assists. Getting anyone back to full health at this point is a positive for the Blazers, who have been injury-riddled all season, but expecting Nurkic to immediately step in and flip this team around is a reach. 

He’ll likely be on a minutes restriction when he does return, and with Hassan Whiteside as the starting center, Nurkic would probably come off the bench out the gate. His size will certainly help the Blazers on defense, but as with any injury that requires missing a significant amount of time, Nurkic is going to be rusty in his first few games. The Blazers do have one of the easier schedules remaining in the league, which will be beneficial as Nurkic re-acclimates himself into the game. However, nearly five games back with the Kings and Pelicans picking up steam to chase that final spot seems like too much to overcome even with the “Bosnian Beast.” Getting him back into the mix is a win for Portland, but it’s a little too late for him to make a significant impact on this team’s playoff hopes.

Verdict: Sell 

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