LeBron James Miami Heat

LeBron James: From “Decision” to “Decider”

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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.

Dikembe Mutombo and Bismack Biyombo squabble over finger-wagging rights

TORONTO, CANADA - APRIL 16: Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors wags his finger after blocking a shot against the Indiana Pacers in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on April 16, 2016 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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Bismack Biyombo has been doing the Dikembe Mutombo finger wag after blocks for years, and the Raptors center has said Mutombo gave him permission.

But with Biyombo breaking out and blocking shots during the playoffs, it has drawn more attention – and Mutombo’s ire.

Mutombo, via TMZ:

“I don’t know when did that conversation took place,” Mutombo said … “Him and I need to talk this summer.”

“He claim in the newspaper and everywhere he said I gave it to him. I said, Did I gave him? Was it family? Cosign? But you know what, he’s a young man, man, I let him enjoy the fame. He’s making me famous!”

“I will see him in the Congo this summer so him and I will talk back home with nobody around us.”

This is dumb.

1. Mutombo already approved of Biyombo finger-wagging. Mike Mazzeo of ESPN:

2. I’m sure Biyombo means nothing but to pay tribute to Mutombo and show up opponents – two noble goals. There is no good reason for Mutombo to be upset. He’s being honored.

Yet, this whole thing has Biyombo on edge. Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

Keep finger-wagging, Bismack. Mutombo will come around.

Report: Wizards to offer Bradley Beal five-year max contract on July 1

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal reacts after making a 3-point shot during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, in Washington. The Wizards won 103-89. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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Bradley Beal isn’t messing around when setting his value in free agency this summer.

I’m a max player.”

Apparently, the Wizards agree.

J. Michael of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

Just as the Wizards did with John Wall, offering him a max deal early in the process of negotiation, they’ll do the same with Bradley Beal, a person with knowledge of the situation told CSNmidatlantic.com earlier this week.

This is a smart move.

Washington could let the market dictate Beal’s price, but with the salary cap skyrocketing, it’s bound to come in at a max salary anyway. By offering him a max deal on day one, the Wizards can get Beal on board with re-signing when the time is right.

Beal’s cap number will be $14,236,685 until signed or renounced. Once signed, his 2016-17 salary will become his cap number, and the max projects to be $21,579,000. So, Washington could spend the difference (projected to be  $7,342,315) then exceed the cap to re-sign Beal using his Bird rights.

Beal could get impatient and interrupt those plans, but why would he sign a max offer sheet elsewhere (projected to be worth about $92 million over four years) that the Wizards will surely match if he can just re-sign directly and get about $124 million over five years? Washington is trying to ensure he doesn’t find a reason.

Report: Warriors fretted during 2015 NBA Finals because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were out

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 28:  (R-L) Kevin Love #0 and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 28, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  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.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Some Cavaliers fans still want to put an asterisk on the Warriors’ 2015 championship, because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were injured during the Finals.

Apparently, Golden State had the complete opposite view.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Irving and Love have been the central players in Cleveland’s worst breakdowns. Opponents in the playoffs have scored 1.09 points per chance when they involve those two as the primary pick-and-roll defenders in a play that leads directly to a shot attempt, drawn foul or turnover, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com. That would have ranked last by a mile among 119 two-man combos that defended at least 250 pick-and-rolls in the regular season, per that SportVU data set.

Zoom out to include any trip that features a pick-and-roll targeting Irving and Love at any time, and the number gets worse: a hideous 1.207 points allowed per possession, stingier than only one of those 119 duos — the Jrue Holiday/Ryan Anderson pairing in New Orleans.

Opponents know this stuff. They are putting Irving and Love into twice as many pick-and-rolls each game as they averaged in the regular-season, a massive jump out of proportion to the slight uptick in minutes the two are playing together. These are the sort of numbers that had members of the Golden State Warriors’ coaching staff quietly fretting when both Love and Irving missed last year’s NBA Finals, forcing the Cavs to play superior defenders in their place.

This is how the Warriors operate. They’re arrogant. They reportedly believed they’d sign Kevin Durant. Owner Joe Lacob told The New York Times: “We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things. We’re going to be a handful for the rest of the N.B.A. to deal with for a long time.”

So, I believe Golden State thought Irving and Love – two stars – getting hurt lowered its odds of winning. That doesn’t make the Warriors right, but there is a logic to this thought process.

If the Cavs would’ve had their top talent – including Irving and Love – on the floor, I don’t think they could’ve played the grind-it-out style that better matched up with Golden State. Giving more prominent roles to Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova and running all the offense through LeBron James made the game rougher and slower, and the Warriors struggled in that style.

That’s why I don’t accept this thought process: “Cleveland pushed the Warriors to six games without Irving and Love. Imagine what the Cavs would’ve done with those two.” It’s not that simple. The Cavaliers couldn’t have played the same way with Irving and Love, and the freer-paced alternative would’ve played into Golden State’s hands.

I believe the Warriors would’ve won that series regardless of Irving’s and Love’s injuries. Many disagree. We’ll never know.

But I do get a kick out of the idea that Cleveland fans and Golden State coaches were similarly – though for very differently reasons – distraught about Irving’s and Love’s injures.

Report: Raptors (update: probably wouldn’t have) fired Dwane Casey if they lost in first round

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 23:  Dwane Casey the head coach of the Toronto Raptors disagrees with an offical's call in the game against the Indiana Pacers during game four of the 2016 NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 23, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.   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.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Update: Lowe clarified in an update to his piece:

Toronto might have been one gaffe by Pacers coach Frank Vogel in Game 5 away from bowing out in the first round again, a crusher that would have raised questions about Casey’s job security — even with Toronto holding a 2016-17 option they were leaning toward picking up regardless of the Pacers series, sources say.

These types of mixed signals show why you shouldn’t always take general managers at their word when they give coaches votes of confidence.

 

Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri on Dwane Casey before the playoffs, via Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

If we don’t go past the first round, what’s going to happen? Coach Casey deserves to be the coach. He deserves to be our coach in the future.

Casey was coming off an impressive regular season. Toronto won a franchise-record 56 games, and Casey finished fifth in Coach of the Year voting.

But would the Raptors really keep him if they lost in the first round as the higher seed for the third straight year?

I know what Ujiri said. But it’s one thing to like Casey as a coach – I do – and another to watch another first-round upset unfold in front of your eyes. The experience of seeing four losses to the Pacers can change someone’s mind – and reportedly would’ve changed Ujiri’s.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Toronto might have been one gaffe by Pacers coach Frank Vogel in Game 5 away from bowing out in the first round again, a crusher that would have cost Casey his job, per several league sources.

Of course, the Raptors beat Indiana in seven games, slipped past the Heat in seven games and have beaten the Cavaliers twice in the Eastern Conference finals. That ought to preserve Casey’s job, even if Toronto is eliminated in Game 6 tonight.

The Raptors are at the point where they need a quality playoff coach. For the better part of three straight postseasons, Casey didn’t look like one. He still hasn’t come close to answering all the questions about him, but he has created enough doubt about his postseason proficiency.

Casey has done quality work transforming the Raptors. Unless they’re more certain he can’t get the deeper in the playoffs, they should keep him and give him a chance to try.