SPORTS DIGEST: Lakers make some moves as NBA free agency begins

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

The Lakers surprised many people with their run to the Western Conference finals in the NBA playoffs this past season.

The fact that they were swept in four games by the eventual NBA champion Denver Nuggets did not take away from their run to the finals: defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves in the play-in tournament, and wins over the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

As eyes turn to the 2023-34 NBA season, the Lakers’ goal as free agency started last week was to retain as much of their nucleus as possible and fill in whatever gaps remained.

So far, it looks like general manager Rob Pelinka has been successful. Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura and D’Angelo Russell will all be back next season to team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the starting lineup. 

Pelinka also managed to sign Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent as a free agent, along with forwards Cam Reddish and Taurean Prince and center Jaxson Hayes to strengthen the bench. 

The Lakers may not have as strong a roster as the Nuggets, but if James and Davis can stay healthy — admittedly a huge if — they should be at the top of the NBA Western Conference standings all season.

An interesting person to watch next season will be Max Christie, the Lakers first draft choice in 2022. Christie, a 6-5 point guard out of Michigan State, played in only 41 games last season, averaging 3.1 points in 12.5 minutes, not eye-popping stats by any means.

But Christie has made tremendous strides in adapting to the NBA game. He has added at least 15 pounds to his slender frame and, as the most experienced player on the Lakers’ summer league team, has proven his leadership abilities, scoring 17 points and adding six rebounds and four assists in a loss to the Miami Heat’s rookies in the summer league opener.

The hope is that Christie becomes the number two point guard for the Lakers, eventually replacing Russell in the starting lineup if Russell can’t develop some consistency.

The Lakers added another point guard in this year’s draft with Jalen Hood-Schifino, but Hood-Schifino is in the same situation Christie was in a year ago. He’s a one-and-done point guard from the Big 10 who will take some time to adjust to the size, strength and speed of NBA players.

The Lakers now own the eighth, ninth and 10th picks from the 2019 NBA Draft. That draft produced Zion Williamson and Ja Morant at the top of the draft. Hayes, Hachimura and Reddish followed a while later.

Hayes was drafted out of Texas by Atlanta and almost immediately traded to the New Orleans Pelicans. In four years with the Pelicans, he has averaged 16.8 minutes and 7.5 points a game. He is expected to give the Lakers a better option behind Davis at center than Wenyen Gabriel. 

Hachimura was drafted out of Gonzaga by the Washington Wizards, where he played for three and half seasons before being traded to the Lakers last January for Kendrick Nunn. 

He averages 12.5 points a game for his career, hits 34.7% of his three-point shots and, at 6-8, 230 pounds, has the skills to defend just about anybody on the court. He could be the Lakers’ third or fourth best player, not bad when James and Davis are the top two.

Reddish, the third member of that 2019 draft class, was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks out of Duke. A 6-8 small forward, he has bounced around from Atlanta to New York and then Portland in his four seasons, averaging 10.3 points a game. He figures to replace Troy Brown in the Lakers rotation.

The Lakers are optimistic as the 2023-24 season approaches. Head coach Darvin Ham has a year’s experience under his belt. He has a deeper team than he had last year and there is no distraction like Russell Westbrook awaiting him when training camps starts in September.

The success of the Lakers will once again rest on the health of James and Davis, but this year’s deeper roster will have the ability to overcome injury losses better than last year’s team did. 

This is no time to start planning parades next June, but look for a better all-around season for the Lakers in the coming season.

The Clippers, on the other hand, haven’t done much in the opening week of free agency. They resigned point guard Russell Westbrook and back-up center Mason Plumlee and traded for forward K.J. Martin, the son of former NBA player Kenyon Martin, who is expected to be an improvement off the bench over aging forwards Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris Sr.

The Clippers are being mentioned as possible landing spots for James Harden and Damien Lillard, two disgruntled veterans seeking greener pastures. Either one of those moves would make Westbrook expendable, but also would probably involve Terance Mann, who at 26 his starting to come into his own as an NBA player.

Just like the Lakers must rely on the health of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the key to the Clippers’ season revolves around Kawhi Leaonard and Paul George, who both can opt out of their contracts after the upcoming season.

George played in 56 games last season, Leonard in 52. They need to be on the floor more than that if the Clippers are going to have any chance to compete in the NBA Western Conference, which is going to be tougher than ever this coming season.

The Clippers have one final season sharing Arena with the Lakers before moving into the Intuit Dome in Inglewood for the 2024-25 season. Owner Steve Ballmer’s dream of raising a championship banner at the same time he opens his new arena, looks like a longshot from here, but you never know what can happen in an NBA season.

Who thought the Lakers would be a final four team this time last year?

MORE INJURIES: The Dodgers continue to suffer from injuries and inconsistency as they stumble along 2 ½ games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks at the halfway point of the season.

The latest injury is to starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who hit the injury list with shoulder inflammation July 3. He will miss next week’s All-Star Game in Seattle, but is expected to return the following weekend when the Dodgers travel to New York to open a nine-game road trip against the New York Mets.

Of course, the Dodgers thought Julio Urias would only miss a start or two when he went on the disabled list in late May with a hamstring injury. Instead he missed five weeks. 

He returned to the rotation July 1 against the Kansas City Royals, but didn’t look very good, giving up five runs on six hits and two walks in only three innings of a 6-4 loss.

In defense of Urias, the Royals didn’t hit him very hard. They scored five of their six runs in the first inning and three of those hits were bloopers that Dodgers fielders couldn’t quite reach.

The Royals, the second worst team in the major leagues, won two out of three games by playing an aggressive brand of baseball that relied on speed more than power. 

The Dodgers haven’t fared well against teams like that this season as demonstrated by their records against other teams that play that style like the Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, to name a few. 

The Dodgers prefer to work pitch counts, draw walks and hit home runs.

They now have seven players with more than 10 home runs on the season, but they continue to run out lineups with four players hitting under .250 and two — Miguel Vargas and Max Muncy — under .200.

All star Mookie Betts leads the team with 22 and rookie outfielder James Outman was the latest to reach double figures, hitting two home runs against the Pirates July 4.

But as bad as the offense is at times, the pitching staff is still the Dodgers’ biggest concern. All five pitchers who figured to make up the starting rotation in spring training have spent time on the disabled list.

The Dodgers got more bad news July 4, when they announced that Dustin May would undergo season-ending elbow surgery in a couple of weeks. 

The Dodgers are currently relying on three rookies in their starting rotation and while Emmet Sheehan and Bobby Miller have shown lots of potential, they are learning how to pitch at the major league level and there will be plenty of growing pains along the way.

The 9-7 loss to the Pirates July 4 marked the 22nd time the Dodgers have blown a lead this year. Closer Evan Phillips was the culprit this time. He surrendered three runs in the top of the ninth inning after rookie outfield Johnny Deluca gave the Dodgers a 7-6 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning with a pinch-hit home run, his first in the major leagues.

The Dodgers approach the all-star break next week hoping to recharge their batteries for the last 70 games of the season. It hasn’t been the season they thought this year would be, but they have time — and the talent — to change that.

RIVALRY MATCH: The Los Angeles Galaxy and Los Angeles Football Club renewed their rivalry July 4 with a game in the Rose Bowl that set a new Major League Soccer attendance record. 

More than 82,000 people crammed into the Rose Bowl to watch the Galaxy win 2-1 on a goal by Riqui Puig in the 73rd minute. Tyler Boyd assisted on Puig’s goal after Puig set him up for a goal earlier that gave the Galaxy a 1-0 lead at halftime. Ille Sanchez scored the only LAFC goal in the 57th minute.

The Galaxy continue to lag at the bottom of the MLS Western Conference standings despite not having lost in their last six games. Unfortunately, the win over LAFC was the first win in those six games. 

LAFC, the defending MLS champions, are in second place in the Western Conference, three points behind Real Salt Lake. The Galaxy are 13 points behind the LAFC but they have the latest win in the local rivalry.

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