LeBron James: The Golden Boy No More

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LeBron James came into this league as the most hyped prospect in the history of the NBA. The first three years of his career were little more than a prolonged honeymoon, an open celebration of how good LeBron already was and how good he would someday become. 
The next two years of LeBron’s career were nearly as joyous; by his early 20s, LeBron had already inserted himself into the “best player alive” discussion, and his teams had a puncher’s chance at the NBA Championship. LeBron’s game was still raw in some areas, and Cleveland came up short in the playoffs, but LeBron was still so young.
It was supposed to be just a matter of time until he got the supporting cast that he needed, that he evolved his game to the point where LeBron and his team would become unstoppable. His dominance was always just around the corner, and it was hard not to get excited about it. 
In the 2008-09 season, it looked like LeBron had arrived in all his glory. His supporting cast was upgraded and he evolved his game to the highest possible level. His team had the best record in the NBA, and LeBron strolled to his first MVP award. His coronation seemed moments away, but Dwight Howard and some huge threes from Rashard Lewis kept the Cavs out of the finals, despite an incredible individual series from LeBron. 
It was disappointing, but it was supposed to be a temporary setback. The Cavs added a veteran frontline built to handle Howard and Lewis, James somehow turned in a better regular-season campaign than he had in 08-09, and it was finally time for LeBron James to win his first year in the last year of his contract. 
Obviously, that wasn’t what happened, and all of a sudden there was no getting around the truth: LeBron James had failed. He had all the tools to win a championship at his disposal, and he ended up failing miserably. LeBron James was supposed to be the next golden boy of the NBA. He will never be that player, and that would have been true regardless of what team LeBron decided to go to. LeBron James, Golden Boy died the moment LeBron lost to the Celtics in this year’s playoffs. The decision LeBron made on Thursday night was nothing more than LeBron’s acknowledgement of that reality. 
For the first seven years of his career, LeBron James desperately wanted to be all things to all people. He wanted to be the hometown kid who loved his town, loved his mom, but could still be a global icon. He wanted to be a team-first player while also establishing himself as a dominant individual force. He wanted to be a goofy kid and the NBA’s big man on campus. After he failed to deliver a championship, his all-encompassing persona didn’t work for anybody anymore. You can’t please everybody all the time, especially if you don’t have a championship. Somewhere along the line, LeBron realized that. 
LeBron James will never become the undisputed darling of the NBA, the way so many thought he would someday become. LeBron never had much of a cult of personality — a quick look around message boards, LeBron’s FaceBook page, or any comment section will reveal that LeBron is now flat-out reviled by the vast majority of serious NBA fans. 
He will never experience the pure joy of bringing his hometown its first championship in a major sport since 1964. If he does win a championship, or even several championships, some people will always remember that he needed Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to get him one. He might win, but it won’t trigger the kind of mass celebration that it would have before. If he wins now, it will have been on his own terms. 
History, especially in the world of sports, is the propaganda of the victors. LeBron said all the right things after he came into the NBA. He played at an incredibly high level for seven regular seasons, and won the last two MVP awards easily. He stayed in his hometown and tried to bring the Cavaliers a championship. He was effective, exciting, creative, and explosive on the court. When he failed to win championships, none of that mattered. He was a failure, and all his previous achievements just gave him a higher pedestal to fall from. 
Trying to do things the right way and losing didn’t work out for LeBron. Now he’s going to take a crack at doing things the wrong way and giving himself a better chance to win a championship. After the Eagle Rock incident and Shaq’s departure, Kobe Bryant didn’t try and be the golden boy he was when he was younger. He starred in a “Love Me or Hate Me” ad campaign. He embraced his inner ruthlessness on the court. 
Kobe didn’t mind being disliked, so long as he wasn’t disrespected. He didn’t try to force his way back into anyone’s good graces.  He just played his game, waited his turn, and eventually got a great supporting cast and two more rings. Today, Kobe Bryant is more respected and beloved than he ever has been before. He still has his detractors, but one gets the feeling he doesn’t care much about them. 
On Thursday, LeBron James took a major step towards embracing his own ruthlessness. He did it during a ridiculous ESPN special while cracking jokes with Jim Gray, thanking his Mom, and donating money to charity, but the message stayed the same: Love Me or Hate Me, my friends and I are going to try and take over this league. 

LeBron James has left his hometown, and did it during a one-hour television special celebrating his move to greener pastures. He is trying to take the easy way to a championship. He’s given up his hometown and his undisputed alpha dog status in order to give himself an easier path to the rings he was supposedly destined to earned. He is a quitter. He is an egomaniac. He is every bad thing that you want him to be. 
The thing is, LeBron James knows that none of that will matter if he becomes in Miami what he never became in Cleveland: a Champion. He doesn’t care about doing it the right way anymore. He just wants to get it done, and let the opinions fall where they may. LeBron James is no longer interested in winning your approval. He knows that if he wins championships, the fans will come to him, no matter what they’re saying about him now. Of course, if LeBron doesn’t win a championship with his new superteam, the backlash he’s feeling now will seem like nothing at all. LeBron had better get to work now, because he’s cast aside whatever safety net he had left under him. 

Stephen Curry says talk of lack of competitive balance “disrespectful” to Warriors, Cavaliers

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This year’s NBA playoffs have been horribly lopsided and they lacked drama because we all knew where it was headed: Golden State vs. Cleveland. They were so dominant that between them they lost one playoff game so far. This has brought up discussions of competitive balance — we have seen the same Finals three years in a row, and we will almost certainly head into next season expecting a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry isn’t a fan of the lack of competition argument, saying it disrespects the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

“That almost is kind of disrespectful, because it’s not like it’s easy for us to get here. It wasn’t that at all. Us and Cleveland worked our butts off all year to put ourselves in a position to be playing for a championship. The league is as strong talent-wise across the board as it’s ever been. Every night we get challenged. Obviously, we had that one stat I guess, point differential, all year. We had a pretty solid showing in that respect. But, every night was hard. Every night was challenging. You can’t just sleepwalk through a season and sleep walk through the playoffs and expect to be here. You got to do something. You got to come out every night and prove yourself. Granted, anybody who was betting on who was gonna be in the Finals probably picked those two. It’s easy for them to say that and just wake up in June and see it happen. We had to put that work in all year long to make it happen.”

Curry is right in that nobody should question the work the Warriors and Cavaliers put in to get to this point, and that the other teams did not just roll over for them. Also, both teams did get a little lucky with injuries.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that right now there is a dominant team in each conference, and that sucks the drama out of the postseason. (Maybe a healthy San Antonio team could have pushed the Warriors, we didn’t get to find out.) Golden State has four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, and that makes them a juggernaut — again, regardless of the work put in. Other teams don’t have much of a chance if the Warriors are healthy and focused, not in a seven game series. The fact that it was flukey circumstances that put a dominant team in each conference — there isn’t another LeBron James returning home, and out West it took a one-time salary cap spike to add Kevin Durant to a 73-win team — doesn’t change the fact this season has felt like a foregone conclusion from the start.

Right now we’ve got what we wanted and expected, the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. But if we head into next season expecting (and maybe getting) round four of this matchup in the Finals, is that good for the league? Why watch the movie if you know how it ends before it starts?

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.

Report: Celtics focused on adding All-Star-caliber frontcourt player

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Isaiah Thomas said he he’d happily forgo a renegotiation-and-extension if the Celtics use their cap space to upgrade their roster.

Where are they looking?

A. Sherrod Blakey of CSN New England:

Multiple league sources have told CSNNE.com in recent weeks that the Celtics are focused on landing an All-Star caliber talent in the frontcourt.

In the last three years, 22 frontcourt players have been All-Stars. Boston already has one: Al Horford. Could the Celtics land any of the other 22?

Almost certainly unavailable

Free agency

Trade

Free agency or trade

  • Pau Gasol (Though Gasol said he’d opt in, San Antonio might try pushing him out to pursue Paul. If Gasol opts in, the Spurs could also trade him to clear space for Paul.)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (The Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season. Nowitzki going to Boston, via trade or free agency, would probably require a mutual agreement between Dallas and him that pursuing a title elsewhere is the right way for him to end his career.)

Report: Spurs exploring Chris Paul pursuit

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The Clippers are taking the Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumors seriously.

And apparently so are the Spurs.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs are exploring the feasibility of making a free-agent run at All-Star point guard Chris Paul, league sources told ESPN.

San Antonio must complete three difficult objectives to land Paul:

  • Clear cap space. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to dump two of them to clear max room. Can they convince Gasol to reverse course and opt out, maybe re-signing at a major discount? Would they trade Parker, who has meant so much to the franchise? Would they deal Aldridge or Green, players who would make major contributions to a Leonard/Paul-led team?
  • Convince Paul to accept a projected max of $152 million over four years rather than the projected $205 million he could get over five years from the Clippers. Although the annual difference is just $3 million and Paul could sign another deal in four years, it’s unlikely he recoups that at age 36.
  • Convince Paul to leave big-market L.A. for small-market San Antonio. Remember, Paul forced his way from small-market New Orleans then ascended into one of the NBA’s biggest endorsement stars.

The Spurs boast a fantastic basketball culture, and Leonard and Popovich make great partners in a championship chase. There are reasons San Antonio is gaining traction with Paul.

But there’s still a lot for the Spurs to overcome. Will they? At least they’re trying rather than just dismissing the plot as unfeasible.