LeBron James Miami Heat

LeBron James: From “Decision” to “Decider”


A year ago, the most stunning thing about LeBron James was what he decided. He elected to reject his home-state fans, spurning friends and teammates to join both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Chicago. He went on a nationally televised special on ESPN in a plaid shirt with a neck beard and said the famous South Beach talents line. With one overly-produced interview with Jim Gray, James changed the course of NBA history, wrecked his own public image,  and made a bold statement. “The Decision” remains his most controversial move to date, a defining point in his career.

But Thursday night, it wasn’t what James decided, but how. Against the Bulls in Game 5, in a hostile environment down 12 with 3:36 minutes remaining, LeBron James decided it was over. There’s really no other way to put it. Dwyane Wade helped, but in reality, it was James. James simply chose to win the game. It was one of the most stunning examples of a player simply taking over since… Game 4 when James did it and Game 3 before that. James brought out an arsenal in Game 5 which didn’t require veteran savvy. James didn’t use tactical advantage or take advantage of a mismatch. James was just better.

I’m going to invoke Jordan here. Do not leap to the assumption the comparison is whole. Michael Jordan won six rings and did it as the alpha dog and is the best player of all time, yada, yada, yada. This is like comparing Jordan’s celebratory cry with Kobe Bryant’s, or his mustache to fascist dictators. It’s a superficial comparison, not meant to intertwine the fire that makes Jordan the icon of basketball.

But the shots James hit in Game 5, the pull-up three-pointer on a hair-trigger release, the post-up fadeaway jumper, the barrage he unleashed? They were shots you can’t defend. They were just build on one player being better than all others. And that’s what made Jordan great, in the visceral.

You will hardly ever see a player take hold of a game like James did against the Bulls and shake it until all the money ran out. What’s even more stunning is James immediately came back and played to the exact same level on defense. Derrick Rose had no escape. When the game was on the line and Rose had the moment to seize and send the game to overtime and save the Bulls’ season for five more minutes, James blocked it (with a healthy assist from Udonis Haslem for freezing Rose on the roll to the corner). James intercepted Rose’s jump pass, a jump pass. He was everywhere, all at once, smothering the MVP and taking hold of the destiny he never did in Cleveland.

Yes, that will be the latest criticism of James. Why did he not show this effort in Cleveland? Where was this effort in Game 5 against Boston? Why couldn’t he have had this kind of heart when he wasn’t flanked by elite players? Valid questions all. (What is not valid is “Why couldn’t LeBron try like Derrick Rose?” Rose’s field goal percentage should show that sometimes effort without intelligence does not reap the adequate awards sought.) But the problem is that we’re a results-oriented society, and ten times over when it comes to sports. No one questioned Kobe Bryant needing Pau Gasol to win as the alpha dog or why Bryant couldn’t pass as exquisitely as he did in 2009 even if his targets weren’t as good. The result is what matters. And the results have shown that the best overall player in the NBA at the moment is LeBron James. Why? Because he chose to be.

The only questions left are how good, or better, James chooses to be in the Finals?

And, what does Dirk have to say about that?

Game 1 is Tuesday.

51 Questions: Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

Michael Malone
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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

One incident sums up how bad things had gotten in Denver under the Brian Shaw regime — breaking a fourth-quarter huddle in the final game of February, Nuggets players chanted “1-2-3-six weeks!”

The players didn’t like the coach, some of them didn’t like each other, and with six weeks and 24 games left in the season they had checked out. The young players (and some of the veterans) partied so much Shaw canceled shootarounds because guys couldn’t roll in for them in the morning. Shaw had lost the team long before when he’d tried to fit square pegs into the triangle holes of his offense, and it spiraled out of control from there. The culture in Denver was broken.

Mike Malone was brought in to repair that culture.

The Jeff Van Gundy disciple has shown he can do that before. Malone was starting to build something in Sacramento (they started last season 9-6 before DeMarcus Cousins got sick), where he was asked to repair a franchise culture that by the end of the Maloof era was something akin to the Lord of the Flies. Malone also turned out to be the one coach who had gotten through to Cousins. Even with his defensive mindset and Cousins in the paint, Malone had the Kings playing at the eighth-fastest pace in the league in pace, but the Kings’ owner wanted to play faster (and maybe didn’t want to miss out on the chance to hire George Karl), so Malone got sacked.

The question becomes, is Malone alone going to turn things around in Denver and bring them back to relevance?

Not alone, and not just in one season, but he will get them on the right track.

The first step to show management was behind Malone was the trading of Ty Lawson. No doubt when focused Lawson is a quality point guard (as Houston likely benefits from this season), but he was part of the problem in the end in Denver, to the point of picking up two DUIs in six months (he checked into a rehab facility after the second one). He had mentally checked out and his example was an issue the Nuggets needed to change.

That turns the keys for the offense over to rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who impressed a lot of people at Summer League after bailing on SMU to play in China last season. But he’s still a rookie with a long way to go — as the 15 turnovers in his first two preseason games attest. Things that worked in China and Summer League don’t fly against an NBA defense.

With Mudiay at the point and a team that plays half its games at high altitude, Monroe wants to take advantage of that and get out and run. Expect the Nuggets to get back to their traditional up-tempo games, but with some things Malone loves to run (such as the Rick Adelman corner action).

But for Malone, all things — including good transition basketball — starts with defense. You have to get stops and steals to run well, and the Nuggets were 26th in the league in defensive rating last season (105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). In the first two Nuggets preseason games, that was the Nuggets focus (with mixed results).

Malone’s challenge starts with getting Kenneth Faried to buy in and play as hard on defense as he does on offense — something Faried has never done. Faried has been a defensive minus since he entered the NBA and that becomes one of Malone’s first major projects (even if it’s just to boost Faried’s trade value). Faried, who clashed with Shaw over his role, has said he’s felt energized under Malone, now the coach just has to steer that energy to the defensive end of the court.

Malone will be searching for the right center to put next to Faried, and I expect that will mean a lot of Jusuf Nurkic (who is young and shows it at times). But also expect to see some small-ball lineups with Faried at the five. Something like Mudiay, Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Faried. A lineup with some athleticism and shooting that could put up points, but would they get any stops? If Gary Harris slots in for Foye, does that help the defense (Harris is guy Nuggets fans may see more and more of as the season goes on).

The roster is a work in progress, and if you were to bet on the Nuggets doing one thing this season, it should be making trades. Things are going to change.

There are nice pieces on the Nuggets, but not enough of them and with some real questions about how it all fits together. This is not a playoff team this season, not in the West.

But it’s a team that Malone could have playing a lot better late in the season than at the beginning, once some of those questions start to be answered, and the young players gain experience. That should be the goal in Denver. Begin to change the culture, get buy-in on the system, get guys playing hard again rather than dreaming of Cancun vacations by February. Change can be incremental, but Malone will start the change.

Then in a couple of years, you’ve got the team you want.

Well, so long as the Nuggets ownership doesn’t get impatient and decide it needs to change directions again.

Another Pelicans center down: Omer Asik out three weeks

Omer Asik, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver
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The Pelicans will have to play Anthony Davis at center now.

With backup center Alexis Ajinca already sidelined, starting center Omer Asik suffered his own injury.

Pelicans release:

The New Orleans Pelicans announced today that center Omer Asik is expected to miss the next three weeks with a right calf strain. The injury occurred during Wednesday’s practice.

If that three-week timeline is firm, Asik would miss two regular season games – at Warriors and at Trail Blazers.

Davis figured to be the most natural fit at center in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo scheme. What happens if the Pelicans excel with him there and then stumble once Asik and Ajinca return? Because New Orleans had Bird Rights for Asik and Ajinca, re-signing them made some sense. And once they’re re-signed, Gentry must find a role for them. But that could get harder if it becomes obvious the team is best with Davis at center.

As long as Asik and Ajinca are out, Kendrick Perkins probably moves into the rotation. Jeff Adrien could also see minutes at center. Suddenly, Adrien, on an unguaranteed contract, has a much better chance of making the regular-season roster. Ryan Anderson probably plays more at power forward, too, with Davis logging more time at center.