LeBron gets to choose his destiny as free agency begins

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lebron_james_arty.jpgLiving in a free country has many advantages. You get to freely select where you live, who you marry, what you do with your time, where you work, what you do, what you say, and how you feel.

But along with those freedoms is a cost. It’s the money you need to accomplish what you want. It’s the fallout of what you say and how you represent yourself. It’s the meaning of the choices we make with the freedom we’re given.

Every decision has consequences. What we do, and how we do it, matters. We affect not only our own lives but those around us, and sometimes, in the rarest of circumstances, our decisions can influence communities, cities, states, the nation, the world.

LeBron James begins the final stretch of a path he began months ago. Years ago, really, when you consider how his last contract was structured, specifically, to lead to this moment, along with those of his friends and peers. This decision is one marked by pomp and circumstance, and just the attention the decision is garnering increases both his brand, and the pressure on him to make the right choice. This is the apex of his power, his ability to shape the league for years to come. And he has a series of priorities he has to align in this process, which isn’t easy.

James is, to be sure, soaking this moment in. He’s milking it for all it’s worth. He’s the biggest story of the summer, and he’s not dunking one basketball in public. He’s sought after, dreamed of, prayed for, and being begged everywhere he goes by casual fans and the rich and famous alike, to save their franchise. It’s a good feeling.

But what most people are missing is how important this decision is. Consider the following:

Bloomberg hours ago came out with an estimate that says that James’ departure could cut the value of the Cavaliers by $250 million. His name is being used in smear campaigns in elections. New York City’s Economic Development Corporation puts his impact on the city at over $57 million a year. Every city has a slogan. Every city has a campaign. Every city has a pitch. And James will have to decide what’s most important to him when he decides to put his name on the dotted line.

What exactly is he choosing between? Here is what hinges on his decision.

1. Money: This topic is broached with skepticism, disgust, and aversion by major media personalities and fans alike. We want our athletes to care more about their fans, more about winning, more about anything else than money. But realize, whatever James does, someone misses out, someone is hurt. If he leaves Cleveland, the franchise he helped resurrect will fall to ruin. This is the kind of thing that can submarine a franchise permanently. The city would be so burned by the ordeal it may never recover in terms of basketball. All the money that has poured in around the attraction of James departs.

If he goes to New York, he’s got the best chance of making the most for himself and his people. Forget the NBA salary. Six teams have room for his max. It’s about everything that goes along with it. Yes, we live in an internet age, and his exposure is universal. But the fact is that endorsing events, products, concepts in New York garners more money than it does elsewhere. And being based out of New York brings in more people which brings in more dollars. But what does he care? He’s going to make $16 million dollars next season, regardless. Why does the money matter?

Because he has an empire. Like it or not, James employs a good number of people. And he has the capacity to build brands, companies, endeavors which will both create more money for himself, and allow him the opportunity to pay more of those who support him. More money means more charity dollars. A bigger empire means more employees. Yes, we’re talking degrees of obscenity between net incomes, but those things do trickle down all the way. And that’s on his mind.

We live in a society where money talks, and cliche endeavors walk. He has a responsibility to himself, his employees, his family, and yes, his hangers-on to make the best decision he can, financially.

2. Championships: James has to win a championship. No, sorry, strike that. He has to win multiple championships. He needs to challenge Jordan and Kobe, and he does not have all the time in the world.

He’s 25, yes, but 28 will be here soon, and then 30, and then the window starts closing in, even for an athlete of his unbelievable stature. He has a responsibility to his fans, his legacy, and honestly, to basketball, to become a champion, and a perennial one at that. This is what we expect of him. It’s a vicious cycle. He performs amazingly, we demand he will his team to the playoffs. He dominates the playoffs, we demand he wins a championship. He wins a championship, and we’ll demand he wins more.

That’s what sports is. And from the day James stepped into the league, he’s been expected to reach that standard. It’s that pressure, that feature that will so heavily define his legacy (which will also impact his empire) that makes New Jersey a hard sell. That makes New York a hard sell. That makes the Clippers a near impossibility. And it’s the reason there’s so much discussion of teaming up with Wade or Bosh, or both.

LeBron has seen it. He’s fallen to it. He’s watched Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol (and Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum, and Ron Artest, and…) win titles and he knows that’s the new formula. A team with potentially three to four Hall of Famers just beat a team with potentially four to five Hall of Famers. That’s the model. And he knows if he wants to get where he needs to go, he’s going to need help. And not Mo Williams or Wally Szczerbiak or Shaquille O’Neal six years past his prime. He needs a partner, someone he can rely on, who is truly “excellent.” That’s what he has to be, in terms of his sport.

Chicago is there, with a core in place, and it’s obvious Bosh is receptive to that idea. There are downsides, but they’ve shown the commitment (out of nowhere) to putting him at the next level. The coach, the point guard, the role players, they’re all there. But he’s got to be sure. Absolutely sure. Miami?  Wade. Sure, they have no legit point guard and the only other player on roster is a basket case. But Wade. He’d have to share the spotlight, but will that really tarnish his legacy if they fulfill what they’re capable of? But it’s there. He has to consider it. And that ring will continue to be lorded over him, preventing him from reaching his ceiling (if he has one) as a player, as a legend, as a business until he obtains it.

3. Legacy: Chicago is his best immediate roster to contend for a championship. But there’s a statue out front already. No matter what James does, he’s going to be under that statue. He would have to win seven rings, and be the most dominant player on the floor and the league, be such an unstoppable force that even Bosh or whoever his his wingman is considered a footnote, in order for him to exceed the man whose statue stands outside the United Center. It’s a city rich with history, that holds up the Bulls as the one true championship organization (despite their last 13 years and no offense to the Blackhawks).

It’s a city that will demand greatness of him. But it comes with a cache of greatness just below that of t
he Celtics and Lakers. It’s his chance to put the Bulls in the same category, if he can make things go right.

New York stands as a testament to his greatness if it succeeds there. The greatest player in the world, in the greatest city in the world, in the world’s most famous arena, bringing New York back to basketball prominence. His name would be among some of the greatest athletes in the history of sports. And Alex Rodriguez. His life would be the utmost it can be, if he judges it by fame and fortune. His legend will be more if he’s successful in New York than it will be in New Jersey, in Miami, in Cleveland. It’s not fair. And it’s not right. But that’s the way of the world. And that’s something he needs to consider. He owes it to himself, to his people, to his fans to make the most of himself. And in terms of being elite, some would say the only way to do it is to to do it in New York.

But what about building your own legacy, in the world’s most famous town, across the bridge?  The Nets play in New Jersey for two more years. But he would then make his home in Brooklyn. A new franchise for a new era. The house that LeBron built. With Jay-Z as his marketing partner and mentor, running the borough like, well, a King. It’s one thing to be considered a great among greats of a franchise. It’s another to be the icon, the logo, the only one that matters.

But of course, if we’re talking legacy, we have to intertwine it with something else, the last, and possibly most important LeBron James must consider before he puts his signature on a dotted line.

4. Loyalty: Cleveland needs this. Ohio needs this. And he knows it. This is a city and state that spends half its time numb with sports disappointment, yet keeps coming back to the well. They keep asking for more. And James represents their best hope they’ve ever seen of greatness. He grew up there. He’s been a part of the area’s lore since he was a high school kid. He has given more, and been given more, than arguably any athlete ever has.

They watched Jordan’s jumper over Ehlo. They watched the Fumble. The drive. The Indians in general. But it goes deeper than that. They have invested themselves in this young man, identified with him, made him their own. They have put their hopes and dreams on him, and him leaving, for the destinations he’s being targeted by, isn’t just about sports. It speaks to the Midwest being abandoned, yet again, for the bright lights of a coast, or a city with East Coast qualities like Chicago. It’s a rejection of their values like family, loyalty, and the idea that where they live is somewhere worth being. Sure, it’s just a free agent. It’s just a basketball player.

But sports matter to people. We invest in them so that maybe we can get some sort of positive return. And Cleveland has had too much negative return. Re-signing with Cleveland is not the best choice for LeBron. It isn’t. There’s no way I can sit here and write that honestly. Jamison is getting older, and he was the big piece that was supposed to make it all work. The roster is good but not elite, the General Manager was let go, his assistant is running the show, and they can’t seem to find a coach. The franchise is in utter disarray at the absolute worst time. And that’s why re-signing with Cleveland would mean so much.

Other cities will offer him more, give him more, provide him with more opportunities. If his passion is his empire, New York will grow it. If his focus is his legacy, then Chicago or Miami can grant its ascendancy. But if his heart is in Akron, with the people he grew up with, with the fans that have cheered him on from puberty to the Finals, then Cleveland must be the choice.

It’s not the right choice. There is no right choice. No matter what, someone gets hurt by this decision, someone loses out, some part of him suffers an infraction.

It’s true that the choice is up to LeBron. He gets to make this choice with the freedom he’s been given, by God and this country, and this sport, and in reality, it won’t be the most important decision he’ll ever have to make. We make that every day with the kind of person we choose to be, with how we live among one another. But this decision has consequences which he needs to, and will consider. He’ll be wooed, lauded, and celebrated. But he’ll also be decried, defamed, and cursed. That’s the burden. That’s the glory. And it’s up to him.

Good luck, LeBron. We’ll be watching.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop 36 on Golden State in Oklahoma City win

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Once again, Russell Westbrook was the force of nature the Warriors could not solve.

The athletic point guard forced turnovers, threw it down in transition, and drove right past Stephen Curry or  was guarding him. The result was 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists — Westbrook’s first triple double of these playoffs.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the Thunder’s Game 4 win. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

He helped give them a win that has the Thunder on the verge of a return to the NBA Finals.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder defense again overwhelm Warriors 118-94, take commanding 3-1 lead

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts in the first half against the Golden State Warriors in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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One year ago, it was the Warriors’ adjustments, the Warriors’ defense that was propelling the franchise to its first title in 40 years.

This season, the Thunder turned the tables on the champs.

The length and switching of the Thunder defense resulted in 16 steals Tuesday night — and that means easy transition buckets for OKC. That swarming defense had an off Stephen Curry open the game 1-of-10 shooting, turning the ball over six times on the night, and finishing 6-of-20 shooting, 2-of-10 from three. The Thunder defense has made the Warriors shooters tentative; they are hesitating before making a play rather than just shooting in the flow, something that has seemed impossible to do to Golden State for a couple of seasons now. As a team, the Warriors shot just 30 percent from three and 41.3 percent overall, with Klay Thompson in the second half being the only guy who could knock down shots.

Curry was also asked to guard Russell Westbrook for long stretches of the game and that didn’t go well. Westbrook was the Thunder engine again and finished with a triple-double of 36 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds.

Once again the Thunder played fast, aggressive and beat the Warriors at their own game — a 118-94 Thunder win. Oklahoma City now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out Thursday night in Golden State. If not, it feels like Saturday night will be the end of the Warriors 73-win season.

And maybe just the beginning for a talented Thunder team that is just now coming together.

Right now, everything the Thunder try works.

For example, on offense, Billy Donovan made another smart adjustment — if the Warriors were going to ignore Andre Roberson (allowing bigs like Draymond Green or Andrew Bogut to patrol around the rim), the Thunder would start using Roberson like a power forward who set picks, rolled to the rim, and surrounded by shooters he and his teammates could make plays. Roberson finished with career high 17 points on 12 shots.

“He’s a pretty active player so he got some offensive boards and he snuck behind our defense a couple times and we did not guard him correctly,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

It all worked in the first half again, when the Thunder were attacking the rim — leading to 28 first half free throws from the Thunder — and after a tight first quarter OKC stretched the lead out to 20 points behind a 16-point quarter from Westbrook. This is when the Thunder took charge of the game.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Westbrook. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

Golden State made a comeback in the third that was all Klay Thompson — he had 19 consecutive points for the Warriors, and the lead got cut down to 6 at one point. Thompson finished the night with 26 points on 17 shots and was clear and away the best Warrior (with Harrison Barnes second).

But then Westbrook led a push back that again stretched the lead out, and he got help from Dion Waiters with a three (Waiters played well again and had 10 points on the night). The Thunder never looked back.

Kevin Durant added 26 points (but on 8-of-24 shooting, not his best night), while Serge Ibaka added 17. The Thunder may be the only team in the NBA with the depth of athletes to run with Golden State, and they are doing it and making it work.

The Warriors defense has no answer for the Thunder attack, and Golden State is getting away from some of their identity. They have always switched nearly every pick with their small lineup, but because of rebounding concerns this series they have gotten away from that. The Thunder have figured out how to exploit that.

The Warriors have just not adjusted to the length of the Thunder defense — Golden State turned the ball over 21 times, 19.9 percent of their possessions. If you give it away one every five times down the court to a good team, you lose.

“I thought we competed again tonight, I just thought we didn’t play very intelligently,” Kerr said postgame. “Too many turnovers, careless passes. This is probably the longest team in the league we are facing and we continue to try and throw passes over the top of their outstretched arms. Probably not a great idea.”

In addition to Curry, Draymond Green had his second poor game in a row — 1-of-7 shooting with six turnovers, and again he was out of position on defense too often. He has played like a guy flustered by the opponent.

A lot of the Warriors have, while the Thunder just gain confidence. The kind of confidence that will carry them back to the NBA Finals.

 

Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant put on first-half show at Warriors’ expense

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I’d say Warriors fans are stunned, but more than that Warriors players look stunned — they are getting steamrolled by Oklahoma City again, giving up 72 first half points and being down by 19.

I guess we tell Warriors’ fans what we have told the fans of teams they have steamrolled the past couple years — enjoy the show, you don’t get to see many like this.

Above was a Kevin Durant to Russell Westbrook fastbreak assist and bucket. Now check out the fantastic Steven Adams pass, and a highlight package of Westbrook dropping 16 in the second quarter on the Warriors (21 in the first half).

 

Charles Barkley: “I’ve never seen the NBA as bad as it is”

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04:  Former NBA player and commentator Charles Barkley looks on prior to the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game between the Villanova Wildcats and the North Carolina Tar Heels at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Charles Barkley is walking entertainment and the brilliant Inside the NBA would not be the same without him and his off-the-cuff opinions (which is a great thing in sports talk, not so much with national policy).

But he remains the leader of the annoying #getoffmylawn crew of older players who don’t like today’s game.

Barkley was on the Bickley and Marotta on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM last week and went off again on the state of the game, (hat tip For The Win).

“People think us old guys hate when we talk about it. It has nothing to do with the Warriors’ greatness, LeBron’s greatness. But I’ve never seen the NBA as bad as it is, and I’ve been saying it the last three or four years. We’ve got too many young players coming out of college that don’t know how to play. It’s frustrating for me because I want to see competitive basketball.

“We took a survey on our crew … How many actual NBA teams would you buy season tickets for?” he added. “Four in the west and Cleveland obviously in the east. That’s not good for our league.”

To be fair, Barkley speaks for a lot of people here.

I think they are all wrong, but he speaks for them. And I think they are a plurality. Based on television ratings going up even as streaming of live games spikes (as someone who works for Comcast/NBC, I can say the in-market streaming of CSN teams such as the Warriors, Celtics, Wizards, etc. did well this year and grew faster than projections), as I look at the crossover appeal of Stephen Curry, the sendoff Kobe Bryant got, the popularity of LeBron James and Kevin Durant etc, the league is doing well by any measure.

But more than that, the game now is more entertaining than it’s been in years. Tell me how grabbing some guy on the perimeter, the clutching and clawing to slow the game down in the 1990s leading to 86-82 slogs, was more fun than the skill being shown today. Jordan was must watch, frankly Barkley was fun, but Mike Fratello’s Cavaliers teams? The Mavericks and Clippers of that era? I think Barkley and others look at the past through some Mr. Magoo glasses, but that is their prerogative. I loved 80s basketball. I liked 90s basketball. But to constantly dismiss the game today just sounds like someone clinging to the past.