Like it or not, LeBron James' 'Decision' is all part of the plan, and it's working

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James_numberone.pngWhen word broke that LeBron James would be announcing his decision regarding the biggest free agency signing in NBA history in a one-hour special on ESPN, the criticism exploded the internet like Brazil going down in flames did to Twitter.

Everyone and their mother wants to point out LeBron’s ego, his unfathomable self-concept bent out of control. The word “ridiculous” has been used about a zillion times along with other nastier words. James is construed as being overly self-important by the same people who have posted thousands of stories over the last week about him. Believe me. I’m one of them.

And I’m here to tell you that James’ decision surely strikes of arrogance. And it strikes of super-ego and not in the Freudian sense. It reeks of a media culture gone overboard, having lost any sense of perspective or rationale, and it cries out a desperate need for attention from one of the most powerful men in sports.

I’m also here to tell you it’s genius. And that it’s exactly what LeBron James should do.

Recognize that the people who are saying they won’t watch this debacle, who are filled with outrage over James’ little dog and pony show? James doesn’t need them. Doesn’t care about them. They’re going to follow what he does anyway. He’s already got them. These are sports fans and media who are dialed into the NBA. They know enough about James to dislike the way he chews his nails on the sideline or his mannerisms in interviews.

You know how they know those things to dislike them? They watch him. All the time. They’re immersed in sports media. And so those people have nothing James is trying to reach. They are not his target with this. If they were, he’d simply release a statement or leak it to the most convenient reporter, many of whom are currently criticizing him but would beat their own mother with a roll of quarters in a sock to get word of what jersey James is rocking next season.

He’s got no use for us, because he already has us.

But you know what he does have use for? Everybody else.

James has often had the term “global icon” tied back to his business goals and branding image. It’s a strong term and one that has a lot tied to it. It’s difficult for a sports entity to reach that kind of level, especially in a day and age where things live and die in a matter of months (the Jonas Brothers were a really big deal two years ago; cower in fear Justin Bieber). Athletes have an even more difficult row to hoe. Most of the brand expansion opportunities are controlled by their team, by their league, by the networks that air the games they play in. They don’t have that much power on their own. But James and his team have recognized this moment and are using it as a launchpad that will directly put them on another level with the people that matter most. Casual sports fans.

Thursday night, in the middle of the NBA offseason when nothing is really going on in the actual sport, 90% of all sports bar televisions will be turned on LeBron James. In Kansas City, Missouri, a local bar called Lew’s is having a “LeBron James Watch Party.”

There is no NBA team in Kansas City. Nor in St. Louis, or anywhere close to nearby until you hit Oklahoma City.

That’s how much impact James’ event is having.

Try and imagine tomorrow night, as all across America, all across the world televisions are flipped to ‘LeBron James Presents: The LeBron James Show! Starring: LeBron James!” People who don’t even normally watch the NBA, who didn’t catch a lick of the Eastern Conference Semifinals will be seeing his face everywhere. Everyone will be betting on where he goes, talking about his personality, even discussing how ridiculous the event is, even as they keep watching. Boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, spouses, brothers, sisters, business associates of people that want to watch will all get caught up in it, even for the hour. He’s the most famous person in America tomorrow night. Think about that.

You know who doesn’t care if something is a complete circus? The ringmaster. Because he’s counting your hard-earned bills after you’re done staring at the Bearded Lady.

The show is being sponsored by Vitamin Water, McDonalds, and Nike. That’s the kind of push he’s getting. Yes, those are all James sponsors. But you don’t think Burger King, Red Bull, or Reebok wouldn’t have jumped through fire to get spots? He’s donating the proceeds to charity, which means that when it plays to the casual fan, it softens the blow. Sure, bloggers and pundits and NBA die-hards will retch at the spectacle, but the middle-class father of two, sitting at home flipping channels and watching after he heard a guy from work talk about it? It plays well with him.

And that’s what James is shooting for. It makes him more than just a basketball player. What he does matters. So much, that you and all your friends remember where you were when he announced who he was signing with. It’s too much. Of course it’s too much. You have to be too much in order to get penetration in the biggest niche market of all: everyone else.

You can be disgusted by it, you’re well within reason to. But also bear in mind that James’ pursuit is something more than what just being a great basketball player can do for him. He wants to have a business empire that extends beyond the fans that buy his jerseys and cheer for him at games. He wants a place in the cultural and business atmosphere that is rarefied and extremely difficult to reach. It takes an inordinate amount of planning, expense, and effort to execute.

Thursday night, Lebron James can put himself on the map in a way few athletes, few people, ever have. The world stops for him tomorrow night.  We can turn our cheek or up our nose or whatever we’d like but this isn’t about a handful of people, it’s about the world.

And right now, King James has it in the palm of his hand.

Report: Raptors to begin contract extension talks with coach Dwane Casey

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors looks on from the sideline in the first quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Entering the season, Dwane Casey’s seat was a little warm. He was not hired by the GM now in charge, and last season the Raptors had taken a step back, especially defensively.

After Toronto just ended the greatest season in franchise history — 56 wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals — Casey’s job is safe. In fact, the Raptors want to make sure he sticks around a while longer, reports Marc Stein at ESPN.

The Raptors and coach Dwane Casey are expected to soon begin talks on a contract extension, league sources said Friday night after Toronto’s season ended with a 113-87 loss to the Cavaliers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Casey has one season left on his current contract at the Raptors’ option for $4 million next season.

Both sides want to get a deal done, which usually means things happen quickly.

This is a smart move by the Raptors, clearly Casey connects with this team and knows how to get the most out of them, and he adapted well in the playoffs looking for rosters and lineups that worked. He’s the right coach for this team.

Pelicans’ rookie guard Bryce Dejean-Jones has died at age 23

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 04:  Bryce Dejean-Jones #31 of the New Orleans Pelicans drives to the basket during the first half of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Smoothie King Center on February 4, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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This is a sad and stunning development.

Bryce Dejean-Jones, the rookie guard of the New Orleans Pelicans, has died, the Dallas, Texas, County Coroner has confirmed to NBC Sports. Travis Hines of the Ames Tribune broke the news.

Dejean-Jones was just 23.

“It is with deep sadness that the Pelicans Organization acknowledges the sudden passing of Bryce Dejean-Jones,” the Pelicans’ organization said in a statement. “We are devastated at the loss of this young man’s life who had such a promising future ahead of him. Our thoughts and prayers are with Bryce’s family during this difficult time.”

The coroner’s office would not give a cause of death, but Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports had the tragic detail.

The account of him being shot has been confirmed by multiple sources, including the Dallas Police Department, which released an incident report to the Dallas Morning News. Here is that report:

“On May 28, 2016, at approximately 3:20 a.m., Dallas officers responded to the 2500 block of Bennett Avenue regarding a shooting. Upon arrival officers found one individual had been shot. The resident of the apartment reported that an individual had kicked open the front door and entered his apartment. The resident, who was asleep in the bedroom, heard the individual enter and retrieved a handgun. He stated he called out to the individual, but was not answered. As the individual kicked the bedroom door, the resident fired his gun. The individual left the apartment and collapsed in the breezeway. The individual was transported to a local hospital where he died from his injuries. This offense is documented on case number 127685-2016 and Dallas Police Homicide is conducting an investigation.”

As someone who spent years as a crime and police reporter, let’s just say come at these initial police reports of incidents — and what people tell the police — with a critical eye.

Understandably, players who knew Dejean-Jones are greiving.

Dejean-Jones was undrafted out of Iowa State, he was picked up on a 10-day contract by New Orleans this season, but the rash of injuries the Pelicans suffered pushed him into a starting role for 11 games. He averaged 5.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game, and to his credit did shoot 37.5 percent from three. On Feb. 19 he took a hard fall and fractured his wrist, which eventually required surgery and ended his season. He was a guy known for attitude problems at the start of his college career at USC the UNLV, but had seemed to mature and his game had as well. He looked like someone who could stick as a reserve guard in the NBA.

Our thoughts go out to his family and friends.

LeBron James first player to reach six straight finals in 50 years

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It speaks to an incredible level of talent — talent that was honed in countless hours in the gym.

It speaks to an amazing durability.

It speaks to leadership.

LeBron James has a long resume of accomplishments — two titles, four MVPs, and he hasn’t missed an All-Star Game or an All-NBA team for a decade — but he reached one of his more impressive milestones in leading the Cavaliers past the Raptors to the NBA Finals on Friday night.

LeBron has reached six straight NBA Finals.

He’s the first player to do so in 50 years.

The last guys to do this were Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Bob Cousy and other members of the 1950s-60s Celtics dynasty. Nobody since has done it — not Magic, Bird, Jordan, Wilt or the rest.

Yes, it helps cement LeBron’s legacy as one of the all-time greats, but more than that it’s something we need to step back and appreciate. These were all LeBron-led teams — he has been the leader on and off the court, setting the tone. That requires incredible talent and skill on the court, plus knowing how to make those guys better not just drag them along on your coat tails. It also takes incredible physical durability. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

“There’s only one LeBron James,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after his team was eliminated by James and company. “He makes a difference on whatever team he plays on.”

I can feel the typing in the comment section already: “But he’s 2-4 in the Finals, Jordan was 6-0” or “But he’s done it in a weak East” or “He keeps just jumping teams to where he has the most help.” It’s all just sad. Because LeBron James is the first NBA superstar of the social media age he faces a volume of criticism that past stars did not. It’s not that LeBron hasn’t brought some criticism on himself, but there is a need to tear him down that the mythologized Jordan never dealt with. We savored Jordan at the time; LeBron has never gotten that. Jordan took 13 NBA teams to the playoffs, six made the Finals; LeBron has taken 11 and seven are in the Finals. The thing is, it’s difficult to compare across eras in the NBA:

All of this is not to say LeBron’s record is better than Jordan’s, you and your buddies can debate that while sitting on bar stools until last call, but LeBron has been on an epic run through the peak of his career the likes we haven’t seen in a long time. If you’re a fan of the game, you should appreciate that, not try to tear it down (as if Jordan’s legacy somehow needs protecting).

What LeBron has done is a stunning accomplishment. If you’re in the same sentence with the legendary Russell Celtics teams, you’re doing something right.

Warriors/Thunder Game 6: Four things to watch as Oklahoma City tries to close out series

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For the Thunder, it is a chance for validation and an opportunity to get the ring Kevin Durant (and Russell Westbrook, and the rest of them) crave. For the Warriors, it is their biggest test of the last two seasons. Game 6 is Saturday night in Oklahoma City, here are four things to watch.

1) Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson need to play better for the Thunder. After a couple of series where Waiters suddenly has been reborn as a quality NBA player who is the third playmaker the Thunder need, and after Andre Roberson dropped a career playoff high of 17 points the game before, both were MIA in Game 5. Roberson was 2-of-5 shooting and had as many points as fouls (six). Waiters didn’t hit a shot all night. This was tied to the Thunder returning to the bad habits of too much Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking on the world and OKC not enough ball movement in the halfcourt. The Scott Brooks Thunder of the past few seasons showed up in Game 5, if the Thunder fall back to those bad habits again, they will lose again.

I expect the Thunder to treat this like their Game 7 and play much better. They will have a real sense of urgency; their defense will again be energized. The question becomes can the Warriors match it?

2) Can Andrew Bogut keep the Thunder from scoring in the paint?
In Game 5, the Thunder were 8-of-18 shooting in the restricted area, and 7-of-19 in the rest of the paint. That’s not going to get it done. A lot of that was the impact Bogut had in the paint — plus he got help, the Warriors switched pick-and-rolls more, they packed the paint more and took away driving lanes. It all worked, in part because Bogut and Draymond Green played with much better energy than in previous games. Steve Kerr said he didn’t play Bogut as many minutes in the first four games due to foul trouble, he has to trust the veteran to play through fouls in this game. The Warriors have simply been better with him on the court this series and they need close to 30 minutes from him this game.

Tied to Bogut’s play…

3) Golden State defense needs to show up on the road. As noted above, the Warriors went back to a more traditional defense in Game 5 — they started guarding Roberson (rather than having a big “guard” and ignore him to protect the paint), they switched, they stayed home in the paint, and they just trusted each other and played their system better. It was a marked improvement. However, they did it at home — now they need to do it on the road, where Green, in particular, has been more prone to mistakes and frustration.

One key here worth emphasizing is the Warriors got back to switching most pick-and-rolls — that’s what they did all season, that’s part of why the “death lineup” is so successful defensively, yet in this series they increasingly went away from it (in part because of how they guarded Roberson). Switching is part of who the Warriors are, and while it will create some mismatches teams don’t want to stray too far from their core identity.

4) Stephen Curry needs to be MVP level Curry. Draymond Green needs to be his All-NBA self.
I’m not saying the same thing about Durant and Westbrook because I have no doubt they will show up with urgency in their games Saturday night. However, Curry and Draymond have been shadows of themselves in the two previous games in Oklahoma City, and if that happens again only one team is flying back to the Bay Area postgame.

Curry finished his drives a little better in Game 5, and at moments he blew by bigs switched onto him off of picks, something we have seen far less of this series than during the season. Green played well defensively in Game 5, he hit the boards hard, but he made some head-scratching offensive decisions. If the Warriors are going to force a Game 7, those two guys have to be elite in this game. The Warriors best players must lead. It’s that simple.