SPORTS DIGEST: Even with Westbrook, Lakers still have a chance

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Lakers fans hoping that Russell Westbrook would somehow disappear from the roster between now and the start of the NBA season in October probably are waiting for Santa Claus in December.

There was no way Westbrook was going to opt out of a $47 million contract for next year and there was no way the Lakers were going to trade him and their next first-round draft pick — in 2027 — because the Lakers weren’t trading that draft pick and no other team would make that trade without the draft pick.

Therefore, the Lakers and Westbrook are stuck with each other and the only option now is to make the best of a bad situation.

It isn’t like Westbrook is a horrible basketball player. He averaged 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 8.4 assists last year. Most NBA players would take those stats.

The rebounds were right at his career average. The assists fell off by more than one assist per game — he averages 8.4 assists a game in his career — but that could be expected with LeBron James directing the offense most of the time.

Except for free throws, Westbrook’s shooting percentages last year were close to his career totals.

His overall field goal percentage last year was better than his career (44.4% for the season, 43.85 for his career). His three-point percentage was 29.8% last year (30.5% for his career).

Only his free throw shooting was way off last year (68.7% compared to his 78.3% career average).

His points per game, however, dropped from a career average of 22.8 points a game to 18.5. Couple that with the inability to adapt to playing along side James and Anthony Davis, a lack of intensity on defense and disagreements with head coach Frank Vogel on his role with the team and Westbrook became the fall guy for the Lakers season that failed to live up to expectations as they finished 33-49 and in 11th place in the Western Conference.

Not much went right for the Lakers last season. Davis couldn’t stay healthy. James started to show his age. Westbrook couldn’t fit into the system. Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza were mere shells of their former selves.

Kendrick Nunn never got into a game and Talen Horton-Tucker didn’t develop the way the team expected.

There is a chance the Lakers could bounce back next season and make the playoffs. If Davis can stay healthy and James can continue to defy father time, the Lakers have a solid one-two combination to build around.

Couple that with a motivated Westbrook (he’ll be playing in the final year of his contract and will want to demonstrate to someone that he still matters), the continued development of Malik Monk, the return of Nunn and some astute roster-building by general manager Rob Pelinka and the Lakers could be in the running for a playoff berth when next April rolls around.

Yes, those are a lot of ifs, but the off-season is a time for optimism. Reality will arrive soon enough in October. By then, we will know who Pelinka is surrounding James and Davis with this season and we will have a better idea where the Lakers will rank in the NBA hierarchy.

The Lakers traded up into the second round of last week’s NBA Draft to pick Max Christie out of the University of Michigan with the 35th overall pick. They also signed Scotty Pippen Jr. and Cole Swider to two-way contracts, meaning both are likely to spend most of next season with the Lakers’ G-League team.

The team doesn’t have any room under the NBA salary cap to make a big off-season splash. That’s why Kyrie Irving isn’t coming west to reunite with James.

Pelinka is going to have to find free agents willing to fit into the specific roles the team needs to fill out its roster and still be a potential playoff team.

It’s a big job ahead for Pelinka. But he knows for certain now that Westbrook — and his $47 million salary — will still be part of the team.

HITTING THE WALL: While looking at the Lakers through rose-colored glasses, let’s put the brakes on talk that the Clippers will contend for the NBA title next year.

Yes, Kawhi Leonard will be back, but he is now 31 years old and the last time he played more than 60 games in a season was in 2016-17 when he played in a career-high 74 games for the San Antonio Spurs.

The announcement was made this week that John Wall would sign with the Clippers once he is released by the Houston Rockets. Wall supposedly will be the addition that will allow the Clippers to contend with the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns (don’t overlook Memphis, Denver or Utah) in the Western Conference.

Wall played the same number of games that Leonard did last year — zero. He has played a total of 113 games since the 2016-17 season ended. He is also 31, but chances are this former No. 1 overall draft pick is on the downhill slope of his career. Will he be the same player who has averaged 19.1 points and 9.1 assist per game in his career? Doubtful.

Yet, the Clippers have a better overall roster than the Lakers. Still, they are the Clippers. Like their local counterpart in baseball — the Angels — they will probably find some way to screw things up.

They did make a good roster move this week, extending center Ivica Zubac’s contract for three more years. The Lakers never should have given up on Zubac (but you can say that about Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Kyle Kuzma, too) and he provides a solid rim defender who can score points when opposing defenses focus too much on Leonard and Paul George.

The Clippers should finish next season with a better record than the Lakers, but predicting a championship just because they added a player whose last team was willing to pay him not to play isn’t what I would base my championship aspirations on.

FREDDIE, FREDDIE: Dodgers fans fell in love with first baseman Freddie Freeman pretty fast, almost from the moment he agreed to his contract with the team in March. And what’s not to like.

In 12 years with the Atlanta Braves, he hit .296 with 279 home runs and 987 runs batted in. With the Dodgers this year he is hitting .306 with 8 homers and 46 RBI while hitting second in the batting order and playing a solid first base.

But Freeman is taking some heat this week after an emotional weekend in Atlanta, when he returned to the city where he played for 12 seasons and won a World Series last year.

As Tom Hanks said in “A League of Their Own,” “There’s no crying in baseball” and Freeman seemed to rub a few people the wrong way with his emotional outburst while the Dodgers were defeating the defending world champion Braves two out of a three times.

Clayton Kershaw even questioned Freeman’s ties to Atlanta, wondering out loud to an Atlanta baseball writer if the Dodgers were playing second fiddle to Atlanta in Freeman’s heart.

In this age when social media can make a mountain out of a molehill as fast as it takes to send out a tweet, Freeman began trending immediately, especially when word broke that he had fired his agent.

My prediction: Freeman will take the field June 30 at Dodger Stadium against the San Diego Padres and get a loud ovation, with chants of “Freddie, Freddie” thrown in. He is an essential part of the Dodgers’ team, he is an intense competitor who wants to win as much as any of his teammates and he will do everything in his power to see that the Dodgers make it to another World Series this year.

Whether that will happen, remains to be seen.

The Dodgers have pitching issues right now, especially with the season-ending knee injury Daniel Hudson suffered last week. Hudson had done a tremendous job of stepping into the role Blake Treinen filled the last two years as a high-leverage late-inning relief pitcher who got key outs in the seventh and eighth innings and left the game for the closer.

Treinen has been out with an injured shoulder most of the season and isn’t due back until August at the earliest. How healthy (and good) he will be when he comes back is anybody’s guess, because relief pitchers are hard to predict.

Hudson’s injury puts more pressure on pitchers like Brusdar Graterol, Evan Phillips, Yency Almonte and Phil Bickford and more heat on manager David Roberts, who is criticized more for his use of the bullpen than anything else he does.

Fans are calling for Roberts to take Craig Kimbrel out of the closer’s role, but fans don’t understand how hard it is to find a good closer.

A closer is kind of like a quarterback in the NFL. You aren’t winning without a good one and there aren’t enough good ones to go around.

It takes a special mentality to be a closer and it takes a while to develop that mentality.

The Dodgers have hoped Graterol would become that guy in the bullpen, but as he showed June 25 in Atlanta, he’s not there yet.

Graterol came into that game in the bottom of the eighth inning after the Dodgers had scored two runs in the seventh and another in the eighth to tie the Braves 3-3. Normally, that would have been Hudson’s spot.

But Graterol blew the lead against the first two hitters. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud doubled and designated hitter Marcell Ozuna homered to deep left field.

Kenley Jansen (remember him) then struck out the side in the top of the ninth and the Dodgers lost 5-3.

Graterol does well in low-leverage situations in the sixth and seventh inning, when there is less pressure. He’s a different pitcher later in the game.

Phillips, Almonte and Bickford have all proven they can get major league hitters out, but they haven’t shown they can do it consistently under the pressure of the ninth inning of a close game with the go-ahead run on the bases.

Kimbrel has done it almost 400 times. By the end of the season, he will have passed that mark in career saves.

Sure, he makes all of us nervous when he comes into the game. But the ninth inning is always nervous time. That’s when he has thrived throughout his career. And when the smoke clears come October, Kimbrel will have more than 30 saves this season and the Dodgers will be counting on him to close out the World Series.

 

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