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.

NBA: Suns got away with offensive foul before key points in win over Spurs

Phoenix Suns Devin Booker acknowledges a foul as San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker lies crumpled on the floor, in the second half of their regular-season NBA basketball game in Mexico City, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
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Devin Booker scored 39 points in the Suns’ 108-105 win over the Spurs on Saturday in Mexico City.

But Booker’s last four – which put Phoenix up for good – came directly after incorrect calls, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report.

First, Booker drew a (legitimate) foul on Pau Gasol with 1:08 left and made both free throws. The problem: One second before that, Suns center Tyson Chandler should have been called for offensively fouling Tony Parker, according to the league:

Chandler (PHX) sets the screen on Parker (SAS) and makes leg to leg contact that affects his ability to defend the play.

That would’ve ended Phoenix’s possession rather than allowing Booker to get to the line.

The other missed call in the two-minute report is trickier, because it directly benefitted the Spurs but indirectly benefitted the Suns.

Manu Ginobili got away with travelling with 59.1 seconds left, according to  the league:

Ginobili (SAS) moves his pivot foot.

But he coughed up the ball moments later anyway, and – thrilled to gain possession with a live-ball turnover rather than a dead-ball turnover – Booker turned the miscue into a fastbreak dunk.

Rather than debate how to evaluate San Antonio getting away with a travel and it ultimately helping Phoenix more, let’s stick to just the uncalled Chandler offensive foul. That netted the Suns two points. Their lead when the Spurs began intentionally fouling? One.

Russell Westbrook puts up 20th triple-double of season, lifts Thunder past Kings (VIDEO)

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Through 41 games — half the season — Russell Westbrook is averaging 30.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.5 assists a game. Those numbers are insane, particularly considering his 42 percent usage rate. He has to put up numbers and do so fairly efficiently or the Thunder stand no chance of winning — and he has the Thunder on pace for 48 wins this season.

The Thunder picked up another of those wins Sunday night knocking off the Sacramento Kings behind Westbrook’s 20th triple-double in 41 games — 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. The video highlights are above.

It’s going to be fun watching him and James Harden go back-and-forth in the MVP race for the next few months.

Three questions to answer: Cavaliers vs. Warriors rematch (plus notes on other MLK Day games)

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It’s the best rivalry going in the NBA — the game that matters most to both teams. Even if they try to deny it. This is a rematch of the last two NBA Finals and a likely preview of the next one, and this January game is a measuring stick. Here are three things to watch for, and after that notes on the other nationally televised games on Martin Luther King Jr. day.

1) Can the Warriors break the Cavaliers’ mental advantage in this series? The Warriors will say the Cavaliers are not in their heads, because that’s not just what competitors say, it’s what they have to believe. However, The Cavaliers have won four straight games against the Warriors dating back to last year’s Finals — Cleveland came from 3-1 down on basketball’s biggest stage to take the title, then came from 14 down to beat the Warriors on Christmas Day. In those games, LeBron James has been nothing short of brilliant and Kyrie Irving has been a late-game killer.

January games don’t decide June series, but the Warriors certainly could use the confidence boost against the Cavs. David West was honest about that speaking to CSNBayArea.com.

“This is a very important game for us,” West said Sunday, “because this is the last time we’re going to be able to measure ourselves against these guys. The only other time we’d get to face them would be in The Finals.”

Two straight Finals meetings means these teams know each other and their sets very well. There are no secrets. That’s an advantage for Cleveland: Golden State runs a lot of deception, fake screens, relatively meaningless actions designed to distract from what they really want to do. But by now the Cavs have seen it all. They aren’t fooled. The Warriors need to beat the Cavs one-on-one occasionally. That is what’s at the core of the Cavaliers game plan — we’re going to force Stephen Curry onto LeBron James or Kyrie Irving (via a switch on a pick), then isolate and bet he can’t stop them. It’s simple but it works, and the Warriors have not had an answer.

Being at home should help the Warriors. The bottom line is they can say the Cavaliers are not in their heads all they want, the Warriors could use a confidence-boosting win to convince themselves of that.

2) Kevin Durant was the best player on the court on Christmas, can Stephen Curry be? There is another way to phrase that question (which ties into the first one): Are the Cavaliers in Curry’s head? He had a rough Finals at points. Curry was a relatively passive 4-of-11 for 15 points on Christmas Day, and immediately after said he needed to be more aggressive.

In the Cavaliers’ four straight wins over the Warriors, Curry has shot  37 percent overall (36 percent from three) and has 15 turnovers to 10 assists. Cavaliers use physical defenders and are aggressive against Curry, they try to trap him and bait him into the flashy, playground-style passes that ignite the Warriors — except the Cavaliers have the defenders to turn those passes into steals and transition buckets. It’s the reason Durant was the best player on the Warriors on Christmas Day (36 points on 26 shots) — the Cavaliers are a very good help/schematic defensive team, but they have guys who can be beaten in isolation. Durant thrives in isolation.

Curry needs not to be baited into bad passes, be aggressive looking for his shot but pick his spots, get to the line a little more, and just knock down some shots.

3) How do the Warriors handle Kyle Korver? This is the one change after the Christmas day matchup. After they finally got a practice under their belts to figure things out, Tyron Lue slid Korver into the “LeBron and the bench” lineup —LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Korver, and Channing Frye. It worked well, as you might expect LeBron surrounded by shooters would work, and Kover had 18 against the Kings. How well this works against the Warriors though could be different — it’s not easy for the Cavs to keep Frye on the court against the Warriors matchups.

That said, the fact defenders can’t leave Korver to help is a boost to the Cavs when they start to run picks to get Curry switched onto Irving or LeBron. Either Korver is going to get some “butt-naked looks” (Tyronn Lue’s words) or he’s going to open it up for teammates. Either way, it will be interesting to see if the Warriors go with Shaun Livingston or someone else off the bench to counter Korver Sunday.

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There are other interesting games on Martin Luther King day, here’s a few things to watch (all times Eastern):

Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks, (1 p.m. NBA TV). The Hawks have won 8-of-9 and are defending incredibly well. The Knicks have won 2-of-12 and have defended very poorly — and that has led to all kinds of speculation and rumors around the team. Another loss would just stoke that fire.

Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets (5 p.m. NBA TV). The teams have struggled but there are two players worth watching here. Denver’s Nikola Jokic is one of the best sophomores in the league, averaging 13.3 points a game on 58 percent shooting, plus he is a gifted passer. Orlando’s Aaron Gordon is struggling in his adjustment to playing the three, but he’s a good perimeter defender and the games he is aggressive on offense good things happen.

Oklahoma City Thunder at LA Clippers (10:30 p.m. TNT). The Clippers have won six in a row, and Chris Paul has been phenomenal since his return. Russell Westbrook has been phenomenal all season, 18 triple-doubles in 40 games, but the Thunder are on the second night of a back-to-back.

James Harden’s 12th triple-double helps Rockets end 2-game skid

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NEW YORK (AP) James Harden had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in his 12th triple-double of the season and the Houston Rockets easily ended their first losing streak of the season by beating the Brooklyn Nets 137-112 on Sunday night.

Held to 105 points in losses to Minnesota and Memphis, the Rockets bounced back with 104 after three quarters and handed the Nets their 10th straight loss.

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 24 points and Trevor Ariza added 23. Houston made 21 3-pointers and had five players with at least 16 points.

Houston shot just 40.8 percent during its two losses, well below its 46.8 season average, while being held nearly 10 points below its season scoring average. But the Rockets had no trouble bouncing back against the Nets, who allow an NBA-worst 114.3 per game.