LeBron James decides to become the ultimate facilitator

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Thumbnail image for James_dunk.jpgScottie Pippen has six championship rings. He’s a seven time NBA All-Star. He was an NBA All-Star Game MVP in 1994, a 3-time NBA First-Team All-NBA selection, and an 8 time NBA All-Defensive team selection. He is considered one of the greatest players in NBA history and a legend in the truest sense for being the ultimate support player to the greatest of all time.

And today, his name is being tossed around as an insult.

When LeBron James elected to head to Miami to join Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to form a combination of talent rarely seen in the salary-cap age, the backlash was swift and brutal. As our own John Krolik laid out, James now faces a backlash, a change to his persona and his identity that seemed impossible three years ago. Those changes are the result of a decision to leave Cleveland, to deliver what can only be considered Brutus’ dagger to the heart of Ohio as he traipses off to South Beach.

But beyond the damage wreaked by what he didn’t do (re-sign), we have to look at the criticism he now faces for what he did do (take less money to play with his friends on an undeniable contender).

James’ decision brought about a rash of comparisons to, who else, Michel Jordan. The ghost that hangs over every great player in this league cast its shadow over LeBron tonight because Jordan would never defer to another superstar. He would never openly admit that he needed help. No, instead Jordan would rise up and take the team on his back, carrying them across the sky and into the sun, stealing its light to bring back and light his bedroom to read by. He would vanquish the Jabberwocky with his ballpoint pen that he signs his lucrative checks with and would never take a step out of the spotlight so he could share it with someone else.

Jordan. The crown that gives us scoliosis.

What James has done, outside of the Cleveland context and the ridiculousness of the television special, is agree to take a paycut so that he can contribute to a better team. To a team with talent so rarely combined that it’s difficult to find examples of comparable squads even in eras without the salary cap that’s currently giving the Heat organization a noose they’re trying to unwrap themselves from.

James is taking over a role that’s been suggested by better and worse writers. The Sports Guy himself commented that perhaps James was never meant to be “The Man” but instead the “uber-Pippen.” That he’s not wired that way. But does anyone doubt James’ ability to score? To take the ball to the hole in a close game and create points? Does anyone think he can’t come out and score 40 no matter who’s next to him?

But all of that is part of the same process everyone is going through. Taking the hamburger and dissecting it based on the pickles, the mayo, the burger, the bun. It’s not taking a look at how the burger looks together. Basketball isn’t a series of set moves one after another. It’s a movement. One, big, long movement in concert with the other players on the floor.

What’s a greater accomplishment, then? Forcing your game into some sort of pre-conceived notion of what you’re supposed to be (a high-usage jump shot machine), or adapting your game to make the best players in the world even better, and in return, feeding off that synergy to make your game better.

James is a natural passer. He always has been, and no one’s known what to make of it. Point guards pass. Centers pass out of the double. But a forward, with that size, with the vision of a point guard, the touch of a center and the speed of a wing, whipping passes flawlessly, it was something we hadn’t seen. We’ve grown accustomed to it, and we honestly haven’t seen its full potential. With Wade and Bosh catching his passes, maybe we’ll see more of it.

He’s a tremendous rebounder, able to out-soar the most athletic players in the league to capture a needed board. He draws fouls consistently. He chases down blocks, converting easy fastbreak opportunities into conversions for his team. He literally transforms easy opponent possessions into quality scoring plays for his team.

All of this without his jumpshot, the range, the ability to finish at the rim. James brings these auxiliary skills to a team that can take full advantage of them, without wasting them. He can be the kind of facilitator that is the difference for teams, without sacrificing defense, or offense, or anything. He can make the team play better basketball. What’s the importance of being an “alpha dog” in that scenario?

Wade certainly provides him said “alpha dog.” Wade has always held a more obsessive need to win, a more driving sense of the killshot. Wade is simply meaner. Of the three players in this new triumvirate, Wade is the most serious, the most obsessed, the most driven.

So maybe it’s true that James is surrendering his “alpha dog” status to Wade’s game. But marketing? Leadership? Playmaking? James is king of the roost in that regard. And now begins an era where the three can accomplish something never before seen in the NBA, a synergy and drive between the absolute best players in the NBA all on one team.

And if he walks away with the same kind of bounty that Scottie Pippen did at the end of the day, only with more a of a direct role, that’s not a bad comedown. People will say his legacy is tarnished by needing “help.” That his legend will be altered. If successful, he’ll simply have to console himself with multiple rings, the very thing most players would kill for.

Tonight was the beginning of one of the toughest periods in LeBron James’ life, as well as the most exciting and most lucrative. He’s going to become more of a facilitator. He’s going to become less of an alpha dog. And he’s going to become a better basketball player.

Somehow, it’s hard to see how James loses in this scenario.

Report: Kevin Durant told Russell Westbrook he’d re-sign with the Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Russell Westbrook #0 look on prior to game six of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Kevin Durant said he had to distance himself from Russell Westbrook entering free agency. Yet, Durant listened to the Warriors recruiting him all season and had clearly been interested in Golden State for months.

The writing was on the wall.

Except, a few days before taking meetings in the Hamptons (which led to signing with the Warriors), Durant dined with Westbrook.

Royce Young of ESPN:

Three weeks ago, Kevin Durant’s sitting there at dinner, telling him “Hey, I’m coming back, man. Don’t worry about it.” And now, Russell Westbrook has been kind of thrown into this in having to decide his future a summer earlier than expected.

Kevin Durant, more so than even that, was telling people, “Hey, yeah, I mean I’m coming back.” Like I said in there, a week before Kevin Durant sat down in the Hamptons, he was in Oklahoma City ready to make an offer on a multi-million-dollar house. So, the guy was pretty serious about coming back, and then things turned rather quickly for him to leave. And there’s no doubt that the organization felt a little bit burned by this.

Maybe Durant said that. Maybe he meant it in the moment. Maybe he was just trying to appease someone he didn’t want to let down. Maybe he was unclear. Maybe Westbrook read too much into a more clear statement.

There’s a lot of room for imperfect recollection/interpretation. We’re dealing with human beings.

Likewise on the house. Who says Durant was “ready” to make an offer? That’s an awfully difficult assessment to make outside his head. Just as the Celtics had a list of players Durant wanted them to add, it seems he was preparing for all contingencies. It’s hard to nail down rather he was house hunting because he was certain he wanted to stay in Oklahoma City or whether he just wanted a new place if he stayed in Oklahoma City.

So much of what we know about Durant’s process for picking the Warriors suggests a rational decision. He considered them for months, met with multiple teams, conferred with his inner circle then made a choice.

If Durant told Westbrook or anyone else he’d re-sign with the Thunder, that obviously changes the equation. But I’m left wondering:

How many people in Oklahoma City heard what they wanted to hear rather than what Durant actually said?

How many people are incentivized to paint Durant as impulsive, because the alternative — Durant thoughtfully deciding the Thunder weren’t his best option — indicates deeper flaws in the franchise?

Watch Carmelo Anthony put up 16 points in third quarter on China

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Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and DeMarcus Cousins are pretty much locked in as four of the Team USA starters come the Olympics. But who gets that fifth slot, the one for a wing player? Paul George? Jimmy Butler?

Don’t be shocked if Carmelo Anthony gets that slot.

He helped make his case Tuesday, scoring 16 in the third quarter alone on China in an easy Team USA victory in a pre-Olympics exhibition. Mike Krzyzewski likes to reward veterans, and ‘Melo is one of the old guy leaders of this team who has collected two gold medals already. Don’t be surprised if ‘Melo is a starter in Rio (Draymond Green started Tuesday, but only because the game was at Oracle Arena and Coach K likes to give guys a bigger role in front of the local crowds where they play).

DeMar DeRozan just missed spectacular in-game 360 poster dunk (VIDEO)

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Can a missed dunk attempt be brilliant?

DeMar DeRozan says yes.

The Toronto Raptors guard almost pulled off an in-game 360-dunk over a defender during the USA’s latest rout of China in an Olympics tune-up game. How impressive was the dunk? Ask LeBron James.

Kevin Durant shines in first game at new home Oracle Arena, USA routs China again 107-57

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Cheered all night long by his basketball-crazed new fan base, Kevin Durant knocked down a 3-pointer on the Americans’ first touch and slammed home a dunk the very next time down the floor.

Then, another pretty one-handed jam just a few minutes after that.

What a performance for Golden State’s latest big star to help lead the U.S. Olympic team past China 107-57 on Tuesday night for a third dominant victory in as many exhibition games.

Durant, who finalized his two-year contract with the Warriors on July 8, scored all 13 of his points during a 13 1/2-minute span of the first half while playing his first game at his new home, Oracle Arena.

He was the first American player back on the floor after halftime to get in some more shots, all while Warriors general manager Bob Myers stood close by along the sideline.

Booed in Los Angeles a couple days back, Durant received a far more friendly reception in the Bay Area he will now call home. He emerged for pregame warmups to huge roars. He departed the court before the game to a swarm of autograph hounds hanging over the railings in the tunnel – and kindly obliged. One person held a sign that read, “KD is not a Villain.”

Durant received a rousing standing ovation when introduced along with Warriors All-Stars Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

Also cheered was former Golden State forward Harrison Barnes, part of this past season’s runner-up team that squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers to miss out on a repeat title.

The sellout crowd went nuts again when Durant checked back into the game at the 2:32 mark of the third quarter.

Mike Krzyzewski’s latest star-studded roster sure looks untouchable just more than a week before the Rio Games begin.

Chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” greeted Durant in the building where Stephen Curry has won the past two NBA MVPs, becoming this first unanimous winner last season.

Curry – who opted out of playing for the Americans in their Rio Olympic run – had a courtside seat to watch with his wife, Ayesha.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist and former Warriors star Chris Mullin was in the house sitting next to Mitch Richmond.

Warriors assistant coach and former member of the Thunder staff Ron Adams was an early arrival to watch Durant’s warmup routine. At his introductory news conference, Durant joked, “Ron Adams was the only reason I came.”

Before joining Golden State, Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder blew a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. He is ready to chase a championship with Curry and Co.

Green, joined on the court by Durant and Thompson, took the microphone before tipoff to thank the fans.

“We appreciate the support,” he said. “We look forward to going on to Rio and winning the gold.”

It will be the second straight Olympics the Americans have three teammates on the roster. Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook represented the U.S. four years ago at the London Games.

The next stop for Krzyzewski’s team will be in Chicago to face Venezuela on Friday night at United Center before wrapping up its pre-Olympic tour against Nigeria on Monday in Houston.

China, which lost to the Americans 106-57 on Sunday, and the U.S. also meet in their Olympic opener Aug. 6.

A moment of silence was held for former Warriors great Nate Thurmond, a Hall of Famer who died earlier this month at age 74 after a short bout with leukemia.