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.

Here’s all 192 players who declared early entry for the NBA draft

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On June 26, 60 people will be drafted into the NBA. It’s the culmination of a dream for them, one we’re not going to spoil by noting most will not stick in the league beyond a few years (many less than that). Well, maybe we did.

However, a lot more than 60 people threw their hat in the ring — 192 this season, to be specific. There are a lot of reasons guys step forward. Some legitimately know they will be drafted and want to take the leap to the NBA. Some of these people have not signed with an agent and are just testing the waters, then will pull out (they have until May 24 to do so and retain college eligibility, international players can wait until June 12). Others have decided college is not for them (or there were coaching changes at their school) and they feel ready to get paid to play hoops, and while they know that is overseas they put their name out there. There are other reasons as well.

Here is the complete list of guys who have declared early for this year’s draft:

From American colleges:

Shaqquan Aaron, USC, 6-7, Sophomore
Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure, 6-2, Junior
Edrice Adebayo, Kentucky, 6-10, Freshman
Deng Adel, Louisville, 6-7, Sophomore
Jashaun Agosto, LIU, 5-11, Freshman
Bashir Ahmed, St. John’s, 6-7, Junior
Rawle Alkins, Arizona, 6-5, Freshman
Jarrett Allen, Texas, 6-11, Freshman
Mark Alstork, Wright State, 6-5, Junior
Ike Anigbogu, UCLA, 6-10, Freshman
OG Anunoby, Indiana, 6-8, Sophomore
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State, 6-7, Sophomore
Lonzo Ball, UCLA, 6-6, Freshman
Jaylen Barford, Arkansas, 6-3, Junior
Jordan Bell, Oregon, 6-9, Junior
Trae Bell-Haynes, Vermont, 6-2, Junior
Joel Berry II, North Carolina, 6-0, Junior
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana, 6-4, Junior
Antonio Blakeney, LSU, 6-4, Sophomore
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier, 6-6, Junior
Bennie Boatwright, USC, 6-10, Sophomore
Jacobi Boykins, Louisiana Tech, 6-6, Junior
Tony Bradley, North Carolina, 6-10, Freshman
Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky, 6-2, Sophomore
Dillon Brooks, Oregon, 6-7, Junior
Thomas Bryant, Indiana, 6-10, Sophomore
Rodney Bullock, Providence, 6-8, Junior
Jevon Carter, West Virginia, 6-2, Junior
Clandell Cetoute, Thiel College (PA), 6-8, Junior
Joseph Chartouny, Fordham, 6-3, Sophomore
Donte’ Clark, Massachusetts, 6-4, Junior
Chris Clemons, Campbell, 5-9, Sophomore
David Collette, Utah, 6-10, Junior
John Collins, Wake Forest, 6-10, Sophomore
Zach Collins, Gonzaga, 7-1, Freshman
Chance Comanche, Arizona, 6-11, Sophomore
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall, 6-10, Junior
Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky, 6-6, Freshman
Tyler Dorsey, Oregon, 6-4, Sophomore
PJ Dozier, South Carolina, 6-6, Sophomore
Vince Edwards, Purdue, 6-8, Junior
John Egbunu, Florida, 6-11, Junior
Jon Elmore, Marshall, 6-3, Junior
Obi Enechionyia, Temple, 6-10, Junior
Drew Eubanks, Oregon State, 6-10, Sophomore
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State, 6-1, Sophomore
Tacko Fall, Central Florida, 7-6, Sophomore
Tony Farmer, Lee College (TX), 6-7, Sophomore
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky, 6-4, Freshman
Markelle Fultz, Washington, 6-4, Freshman
Harry Giles, Duke, 6-10, Freshman
Brandon Goodwin, FGCU, 6-2, Junior
Donte Grantham, Clemson, 6-8, Junior
Isaac Haas, Purdue, 7-2, Junior
Aaron Holiday, UCLA, 6-1, Sophomore
Isaac Humphries, Kentucky, 7-1, Sophomore
Chandler Hutchison, Boise State, 6-7, Junior
Jonathan Isaac, Florida State, 6-10, Freshman
Frank Jackson, Duke, 6-3, Freshman
Josh Jackson, Kansas, 6-8, Freshman
Justin Jackson, Maryland, 6-7, Freshman
Justin Jackson, North Carolina, 6-8, Junior
Alize Johnson, Missouri State, 6-9, Junior
B.J. Johnson, La Salle, 6-7, Junior
Darin Johnson, CSU-Northridge, 6-5, Junior
Jaylen Johnson, Louisville, 6-9, Junior
Robert Johnson, Indiana, 6-3, Junior
Andrew Jones, Texas, 6-4, Freshman
Kerem Kanter, Green Bay, 6-10, Junior
Ted Kapita, North Carolina State, 6-8, Freshman
Marcus Keene, Central Michigan, 5-9, Junior
Luke Kennard, Duke, 6-6, Sophomore
Braxton Key, Alabama, 6-8, Freshman
George King, Colorado, 6-6, Junior
Kyle Kuzma, Utah, 6-9, Junior
Khadeem Lattin, Oklahoma, 6-9, Junior
TJ Leaf, UCLA, 6-10, Freshman
William Lee, UAB, 6-9, Junior
Zach Lofton, Texas Southern, 6-3, Junior
Tyler Lydon, Syracuse, 6-9, Sophomore
Daryl Macon, Arkansas, 6-3, Junior
Marin Maric, Northern Illinois, 6-11, Junior
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona, 7-1, Freshman
Yante Maten, Georgia, 6-8, Junior
Markis McDuffie, Wichita State, 6-8, Sophomore
MiKyle McIntosh, Illinois State, 6-7, Junior
Eric Mika, BYU, 6-10, Sophomore
Donovan Mitchell, Louisville, 6-3, Sophomore
Malik Monk, Kentucky, 6-3, Freshman
Matthew Morgan, Cornell, 6-3, Sophomore
Shaquille Morris, Wichita State, 6-8, Junior
Johnathan Motley, Baylor, 6-10, Junior
Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas, 6-8, Junior
Divine Myles, Stetson, 5-11, Junior
Derick Newton, Stetson, 6-6, Sophomore
Austin Nichols, Virginia, 6-8, Junior
Semi Ojeleye, SMU, 6-7, Junior
Cameron Oliver, Nevada, 6-8, Sophomore
Randy Onwuasor, Southern Utah, 6-3, Junior
Justin Patton, Creighton, 7-1, Freshman
L.J. Peak, Georgetown, 6-5, Junior
Theo Pinson, North Carolina, 6-6, Junior
Ivan Rabb, California, 6-11, Sophomore
Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State, 6-4, Junior
Devin Robinson, Florida, 6-8, Junior
Josh Robinson, Austin Peay, 6-2, Junior
Martavius Robinson, Lewis & Clark CC (Illinois), 6-10, Sophomore
Maverick Rowan, North Carolina State, 6-7, Sophomore
Corey Sanders, Rutgers, 6-2, Sophomore
Victor Sanders, Idaho, 6-5, Junior
Jaaron Simmons, Ohio, 6-1, Junior
Kobi Simmons, Arizona, 6-5, Freshman
Fred Sims Jr., Chicago State, 6-4, Sophomore
Dennis Smith Jr., North Carolina State, 6-3, Freshman
Zach Smith, Texas Tech, 6-8, Junior
Kamau Stokes, Kansas State, 6-0, Sophomore
Edmond Sumner, Xavier, 6-6, Sophomore
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue, 6-9, Sophomore
Jayson Tatum, Duke, 6-8, Freshman
Matt Taylor, New Mexico State, 6-4, Junior
James Thompson IV, Eastern Michigan, 6-10, Sophomore
Stephen Thompson Jr., Oregon State, 6-4, Sophomore
Trevor Thompson, Ohio State, 7-1, Junior
Melo Trimble, Maryland, 6-3, Junior
Craig Victor II, LSU, 6-9, Junior
Moritz Wagner, Michigan, 6-11, Sophomore
Tevonn Walker, Valparaiso, 6-2, Junior
Antone Warren, Antelope Valley CC (CA), 6-10, Sophomore
Thomas Welsh, UCLA, 7-1, Junior
Thomas Wilder, Western Michigan, 6-3, Junior
Cecil Williams, Central Michigan, 6-6, Junior
Johnathan Williams, Gonzaga, 6-9, Junior
Kam Williams, Ohio State, 6-2, Junior
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga, 6-3, Junior
Christian Wilson, Texas-San Antonio, 6-2, Junior
D.J. Wilson, Michigan, 6-10, Junior
Omer Yurtseven, North Carolina State, 7-1, Freshman

International prospects:

Ege Arar, Galatasaray (Turkey), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Laurynas Beliauskas, Neptunas (Lithuania), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Terrence Bieshaar, Joventut (Spain), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Simon Birgander, Clavijo (Spain), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Laurynas Birutis, Vytautas (Lithuania), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Luka Bozic, Zagreb (Croatia), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Vlatko Cancar, Mega Leks (Serbia), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Leo Cizmic, Sevilla (Spain), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Wesley Alves da Silva, Paulistano (Brazil), 6-7, 1996 DOB
George de Paula, Paulistano (Brazil), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Berkan Durmaz, Tofas (Turkey), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Martynas Echodas, Siauliai (Lithuania), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Cyrille Eliezer-Vanerot, Levallois (France), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Aquiles Ferreira, Pinheiros (Brazil), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Diego Flaccadori, Trento (Italy), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Tolga Gecim, Banvit (Turkey), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Yoan Granvorka, Nancy (France), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Egemen Guven, Karsiyaka (Turkey), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Isaiah Hartenstein, Zalgiris (Lithuania), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Karlis Helmanis, RTU Riga (Latvia), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Aleksa Ilic, Buducnost (Montenegro), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Jonathan Jeanne, Nancy (France), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Alpha Kaba, Mega Leks (Serbia), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Verners Kohs, GBA Sparta (Czech Republic), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Antonios Koniaris, PAOK (Greece), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Arnoldas Kulboka, Baunach (Germany), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Rodions Kurucs, Barcelona (Spain), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Axel Louissaint, Lugano (Switzerland), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Michail Lountzis, Panathinaikos (Greece), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Gytis Masiulis, Zalgiris (Lithuania), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Lovro Mazalin, Zadar (Croatia), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Regimantas Miniotas, Vytautas (Lithuania), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Kostja Mushidi, Mega Leks (Serbia), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Margiris Normantas, Lietuvos Rytas (Lithuania), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Frank Ntilikina, Strasbourg (France), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Elie Okobo, Pau Orthez (France), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Viny Okouo, Unicaja (Spain), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Ayberk Olmaz, Istanbul BSB (Turkey), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Lucas Pereira, Pinheiros (Brazil), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Martynas Sajus, Starogard (Poland), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Borisa Simanic, Crvena Zvezda (Serbia), 6-7, 1998 DOB
Nik Slavica, Cibona (Croatia), 6-7, 1997 DOB
Berk Ugurlu, Fenerbahce (Turkey), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Kristupas Zemaitis, Vytautas (Lithuania), 6-7, 1996 DOB
Zou Yuchen, Bayi Fubang (China), 6-7, 1996 DOB

Celtics fluster Bulls with floor spacing and dirty play, take 3-2 series lead

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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The Bulls couldn’t break free. The Celtics look ready to break out.

Boston beat Chicago 108-97 in Game 5 Wednesday, winning its third straight to take a 3-2 lead in the first-round series. The Celtics pulled away with a 13-0 fourth-quarter run, which was boosted by two Bulls technical fouls – the second on Robin Lopez, who was rightfully aggrieved by an uncalled Jae Crowder leg-lock.

That’ll generate more talk about Boston being dirty, especially in the midst of a chippy series. But at least nobody will be discussing the Celtics being a historically weak No. 1 seed, which drowned everything after Chicago won the series’ first two games in Boston. The Warriors and Cavaliers are the only other teams to win three straight games this postseason, the type of elite company the Celtics would like to join.

Close the series in Game 6 on Friday, and Boston silences the most extreme criticism of its present.

“We’ve got to finish it,” said Isaiah Thomas, who scored 11 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter. “We know Game 6 is going to be a big game, and they’re going to fight for their lives. But we’ve got to go in there and finish it.”

The Celtics became just the third team in the last four years to win three straight after dropping the first two games of a series. The Trail Blazers (vs. Clippers) and Hornets (vs. Heat) did it in last year’s first round. Portland advanced. Charlotte didn’t.

Overall, here’s how teams up 3-2 and facing a road Game 6 in a 2-2-1-1-1 series have fared:

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The Celtics’ odds of advancing might be even higher than that. Their 11-point win tonight felt like it could have been much more lopsided.

Boston shot just 9-for-40 on 3-pointers (23%), but many of those were good looks and the high volume of attempts bodes well. They were a product of a high-functioning offense, and in the long run, more of those will fall. Only a few franchises – Warriors, Cavaliers, Hawks, Mavericks, Pacers – have ever attempted so many 3s in a playoff game, though nobody had ever shot so inefficiently on so many attempts.

The Celtics more than compensated for their cold outside shooting everywhere else. They shot 29-for-48 on 2-pointers (60%) and and 23-for-23 on free throws (100%), getting high-percentage looks and drawing fouls thanks to their floor spacing.

The Bulls, on the other hand, wasted a throwback game from Dwyane Wade (26 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists). Avery Bradley (24 points on 11-of-19 shooting) tightly defended Jimmy Butler (14 points on 6-of-15 shooting), and that matchup won’t any easier for Butler.

Maybe Butler will answer the call, but Chicago is running out of advantages. Boston even had higher offensive- and defensive-rebounding percentages than Chicago. And Thomas didn’t carry anything, even the Celtics to victory.

Boston again looks like the complete team it had been for much of the season.

Bucks’ Khris Middleton, dealing with illness, misses practice

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — Bucks wing Khris Middleton missed practice with an illness that has been bothering the Bucks’ second-leading scorer (14.7 points) all week.

Middleton was 3 of 8 for eight points in 35 minutes in the 118-93 Game 5 loss in Toronto that gave the Raptors a 3-2 series lead. Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said he didn’t think the illness was a factor, and that Middleton had good looks and played well defensively. He expected Middleton to start on Thursday and said he wasn’t pondering any lineup changes for Game 6.

The Bucks got a day off from practice then returned to practice Wednesday after a brief break from what has been an increasingly rugged series.

After getting blown out in Game 3 by the Bucks, the Raptors won the next two games in part by being more physical and slowing down Milwaukee.

Sometimes, a young team needs to learn from failure to get better.

Kidd hopes his players build on the lessons learned from a stinker of a Game 5 in their opening-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. They need to regroup quickly to avoid elimination when the Raptors and Bucks meet Thursday night at the Bradley Center.

“Yeah, I hope so,” Kidd said when asked about whether his players learned from the blowout loss. “Today, I thought guys were focused, understanding what we have to do. It’s not hard, but for us the process of being able to be consistent is the one thing that we struggle with.”

Workaholic forward Giannis Antetokounmpo might have been the only player who didn’t want a breather.

“I don’t know, for me, I didn’t need an off-day. But for sure some guys played a lot of minutes, their bodies are sore,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think for some guys it’s good to get some rest so we can bring more energy tomorrow.”

For all of his athleticism, the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo lacks playoff experience when compared to the postseason-tested Raptors.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton are playing in their second career playoff series after the Bucks lost in six games to top-seeded Chicago in 2015. Antetokounmpo’s role has changed now that he’s the focal point of the offense, so he faces more defensive scrutiny.

The team surrounding Antetokounmpo and Middleton has been almost completely made over since then, with injured forward Jabari Parker and center John Henson the only other holdovers. Henson has only played three minutes against Toronto.

Two other starters, guard Malcolm Brogdon and center Thon Maker, are rookies. Even center Greg Monroe, a seven-year veteran who provides scoring punch off the bench, is making his playoff debut. Fourth-year players Tony Snell (Bulls) and Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers) joined the Bucks this season, brought to Milwaukee in part because of their postseason experience.

In contrast, the Raptors have been through about every conceivable playoff situation after losing to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last season. Led by one of the best backcourts in the game in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Toronto is no stranger to adversity.

“You definitely see that experience come into play and we just understand the moment probably a little bit more than them. That’s not to take away (anything) from them,” DeRozan said. “They are a great team, a young team and this is definitely going to be an experience they will learn from and carry over but for now it’s something we have to keep in mind and understand the moment of going into every single game … to try and close this thing out.”

Milwaukee’s transition game is off track with 31 turnovers over the last two contests.

“That’s the physicality part, because it’s the playoffs, because it’s more intense. You get away with slaps, holds, grabs and that’s a trick of the trade,” said Jason Terry, a 17-year veteran who is averaging about 10 minutes a game off the bench for the Bucks this series.

“If you haven’t (been) through that, you don’t know it until you face it,” Terry said. “I think for us being a young team, now that we’ve seen it four or five games consecutively, hopefully now we can adjust.”

NOTES:

 

Jimmy Butler hits contested deep buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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Shooting buzzer-beaters is especially difficult because the defender knows your deadline to release the shot. The threat of a pump fake, drive to another location or pass disappears as the seconds tick down.

On the other hand, Jimmy Butler is very good.