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. 

Pistons-Kings game delayed for smoke over court (video)

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DeMarcus Cousins, in his eternal battle with referees (and everyone else), retroactively won every argument he’s ever had when he had to alert the officials in last night’s Pistons-Kings game to the large cloud of smoke coming toward the court. It was only then that the refs stopped play.

But the best reaction to the mistimed fog machine was Sacramento coach Dave Joerger:

LeBron James tweets: I’m not mad at Cavaliers GM David Griffin

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers rallies his teammates in the huddle during player introductions prior to the game Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on December 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. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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After tearing into the Cavaliers’ roster construction last night, LeBron James said he’d tweet even more thoughts.

LeBron delivered, softening the point everyone amplified (that he wants roster improvements) and emphasizing the point that got overlooked (that he’s on board with Cleveland general manager David Griffin):

I’m guessing LeBron saw how his comments went over and wanted to quiet the storm he created. What he said sounds so much more resentful. These tweets read as much more constructive.

But the underlying point remains: LeBron is unsatisfied with the roster.

He won’t be a free agent until 2018, but remember, dissatisfaction with the Heat’s roster contributed to him bolting Miami.

Wizards wearing all black to Celtics game for a figurative funeral

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The Celtics and Wizards have a little rivalry brewing:

The latest chapter comes for tonight’s game, with the Wizards – imitating a commonly used fashion for closeout playoff games – wearing all black to the arena.

Kelly Oubre Jr.:

We’re wearing all black to the game. So you know where we’re going with that.

Round three. Let’s get it.

Wall (as Beal yells encouragement in the background):

All black everything. A funeral.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

When Jae Crowder was asked about the Wizards all-black gear, his initial response…“That’s cute!”

Isaiah Thomas, via Blakely:

“This is definitely not Game 7 or the playoffs,” said Isaiah Thomas. “But if they want to take it that serious, they can.”

Gotta agree with the Celtics here. This is an absurd level of motivational showmanship for a January game.

But I also love it! These petty feuds are fantastic and spice up a long regular season.

My favorite part of the Wizards’ funeral motif: Even if they “bury” Boston tonight, these teams meet again in March.

‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top 10 to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?