NBA Finals: Mavs win Game 4, but all eyes are on LeBron

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The Miami Heat lost Game 4, 83-86, in part because of LeBron James. That’s okay. Players are allowed to have off nights. They’re allowed to struggle. They’re allowed to be passive once in awhile, and frankly, it’s human nature to ease off the gas from time to time. But in doing so, they strengthen the possibility of their team losing, and open themselves up to a very specific criticism. Having a bad game isn’t some great evil to be met with moralistic damnation, but it is worthy of an accurate appraisal, and the reasonable exploratory questions that will inevitably follow.

So, I’ll bite. I’ll ask the question we’ve all asked ourselves, with an acknowledgment upfront that neither I nor any other basketball scribe hold all the answers: What the hell happened to LeBron James?

It makes little sense to discuss LeBron’s struggles without making note of the incredible defense played by the Dallas Mavericks. They didn’t pit Shawn Marion or Jason Kidd or DeShawn Stevenson against James and leave that poor, solo defender to their own devices; every Maverick on the floor was tuned to James’ frequency. They had his pick-and-rolls swarmed. They had his jump passes covered. They had five defenders functioning in harmony in an attempt to limit the best player in the NBA, and they succeeded. The pressure is still on James to find his way out from under the constant zone coverage geared to thwart him (and he’ll have to do better than the brand of idle facilitation he tried to fly with in Game 4) but Dallas did a hell of a job in executing their game plan.

That said, most dimensions of James’ struggles were of his own doing. It’s difficult to mount a defense of a star player who refuses to go to his strengths, even as he faces a talented defense geared to stop him. After all, accessing those strengths regardless of circumstance is James’ job. He’s paid and revered for his ability to do what no one else can, and when that ability fails him, his very identity as a player comes under fire by whisper. Playing poorly for a single game doesn’t make LeBron James anything less than he was a day ago, but it introduces the idea — however fleeting and faint —  that the greatest basketball player on the planet can be contained. It’s a hushed message that will neither be confirmed nor denied on this night or even in these NBA Finals, but one that observers of the game everywhere must grapple with.

There’s no problem with James initiating the offense or playing the roll of a creator for others, but his Game 4 struggles didn’t stem from merely assuming point guard duties in the face of an aggressive defense. James didn’t pass; he passed poorly. He turned the ball over four times to hedge the impact of his seven assists, and committed a handful of near-turnovers that didn’t quite blemish his stat line but nonetheless halted the Heat offense.

James may be the closest thing this game has to perfection, but even he has his limits, his moments of hesitancy, his in-game vices. In a way, Game 4 didn’t tell us anything about James that we didn’t already know; James is a man of immortal talent guided by mortal sensibilities. That isn’t an indictment so much as a reality, and it’s no more true of James than it was of Jordan, Bird, Magic, or Wilt. The game’s greats are safe in their critique-proof pantheon, but those players had poor games, too. Accounts of those games don’t often show up in mythologized magazine sidebars or rosy retrospectives, but they’re there — the nights of maddening turnovers, a quick trigger, disinterested defense, or just horrible matchups — buried beneath lore upon lore.

James struggled to even get into the flow of the game, much less produce within it. But he’ll be back. He’ll be back, and we’ll all feel rather silly for wondering where he’d gone off to, as if a failure to engage in fully actualized basketball had somehow shifted James into another dimension. LeBron didn’t disappear. He didn’t cower. He didn’t back down from a challenge, or engage in any other sin of purely rhetorical relevance. He had a bad game at a horrible time, and we’re right to wonder why. We’re right to try to understand, just as I’m sure LeBron himself will try his damnedest to wrap his head around the events of the last few hours. It’s all very confusing, and jarring, and odd. But it’s nothing new. Individual failure is inherent to the game, and as much as we’d like to pretend that LeBron’s Game 4 shortcomings were further evidence of some inescapable character flaw unique to him and other miscreants alone, the product of James’ sin wasn’t so different from that which occasionally tarnished all of those who came before him and all who will come after him.

Basketball — even on the NBA’s biggest stage and for its biggest star — can be a struggle.

Cavaliers have three choices with Kyrie Irving. And no rush decide on one.

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There were a lot of questions around Kyrie Irving‘s unexpected decision to tell Cleveland he wanted to be traded.

The first was why? He reportedly wants out of LeBron James‘ massive shadow, to “be the man” with another team. It also strikes me as a preemptive move — LeBron could leave next summer and Irving wanted to be in control of his own destiny rather than deal with the “is LeBron leaving roller coaster” for a season.

Next was “why now?” This is harder to find a good explanation for. Back in June, Irving talked about staying with LeBron and finding ways to beat the Warriors, a month later he wants out. It has to be frustrating for the Cavaliers front office, if Irving had told them this back at the start of free agency Cleveland might have been able to land Paul George or Chris Paul.

Finally, the question settled on Cleveland and what will they do?

They have three legitimate options.

1. Do nothing and keep Irving. The Cavaliers do not have to trade him — Irving has two years left on his contract, and the Cavaliers have leverage. Cleveland could take notes from the Lakers after Kobe Bryant’s trade me demand circa 2007 — Los Angeles told him they were looking but not move him, and eventually smoothed things over (and won a couple more rings).

It may be a lot harder for the Cavaliers to do that. How deep is Irving’s dissatisfaction run? Can LeBron and Irving mend fences? Or is the discord in Cleveland too great right now to smooth things over? Usually winning can cure all ills, and the Cavaliers should win plenty again. Then again, star players in the NBA usually get their way so if Irving really wants out…

2. Trade Irving for players to help them chase a title next year. My guess is this is the direction the Cavaliers will go. Why? Because Dan Gilbert looks at his franchise valuation since LeBron’s return and wants to keep him, and if the Cavaliers can get another ring (or at least look like a more serious threat to the Warriors) he’s far more likely to stay.

Because Irving does not possess a no-trade clause, the Cavaliers are not forced to send him where he wants to go (unlike Carmelo Anthony). Irving wants to go to San Antonio, but the Spurs would want to send LaMarcus Aldridge back, a guy who is also older and starting to decline, can be exposed defensively, and it leads to questions about a second ball handler for the Cavaliers. A Carmelo Anthony trade with the Knicks creates the same questions — ‘Melo wants to be a Cavalier, but would he and a young player (Frank Ntilikina or Willy Hernangomez) going to make the Cavaliers better. Or even keep them in front of Boston.

That said, there may be deals with other teams not on Irving’s list that better fit the Cavaliers’ needs. What if Phoenix offers Eric Bledsoe, a young player (Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, T.J. Warren) plus a pick? Cleveland gets a good point guard (not as good as Irving overall, but a better defender), a young athletic player, and they can stay near at the top of the East. There will be options like this that come on the table.

3. Trade Irving for young players and picks to jump start a rebuild. This is also known as the “we believe LeBron leaves next summer so let’s just be proactive and get all we can” plan. It should include trading LeBron as well before the deadline and just going into full on rebuild mode.

If the Cavaliers managed this path well — a legitimate question after Dan Gilbert decided he didn’t need one of the league’s best GMs right before the start of free agency — they could stockpile players and picks. It might not be the full Boston stockpile post Garnett/Pierce trade, but it puts the Cavaliers on that road (then it would come down to drafting well and developing players). All of this would require shrewd moves now and patience down the line, but it’s a legitimate course of action.

A fourth option discussed by fans — trade LeBron and rebuild around Kyrie — is unlikely I’ve been told. Start here: LeBron’s importance to the bottom line of the Cavaliers’ franchise value makes him far more important to Dan Gilbert and the organization than Irving. Also, even with what the Cavs get back in trading LeBron it would not make them a contender with Irving as the alpha (he doesn’t defend that well, and he’s not the guy on that team that moves the ball). Plus, Irving may want out still and could leave in 2019 anyway.

Regardless of which option the Cavaliers choose, what matters is not to rush into a decision. If they decide to trade Irving, do not trade out of frustration or anger — it needs to be devoid of emotion. It has to be about getting the best possible return. This summer is obviously a huge turning point for the organization, and they need to make a smart decision.

You know, the kind David Griffin would have made.

John Wall agrees to four-year $170 million contract extension

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John Wall had a designated player super max contract sitting in front of him (figuratively) since July 1, but he wanted to wait and see what the Wizards would do this summer, and talk to his family about a decision that could lock him in Washington for six years.

He saw the Wizards spend — they matched a max offer sheet for Otto Porter. He also looked around the East and decided this is where he wanted to be. He agreed to the extension on Friday, a story broken by David Aldridge of TNT/NBA TV.

This is a four-year, $170 million extension that kicks in after the two-years, $37.1 million left on Wall’s current deal.

Wall has developed into one of the top five point guards in the NBA, averaging 23.1 points per game last season while making his first All-NBA team (the third team, which he thought was a let down). He is a strong defensive point guard and still arguably the fastest guy in the league with the ball in his hands. He and Bradley Beal have formed one of the more formidable backcourts in the NBA.

Wall is now getting paid like an elite point guard, and he is just entering his prime.

Check out Boston’s Jayson Tatum’s 10 best plays from Summer League (VIDEO)

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Jayson Tatum was one of the standouts at Summer League.

The No. 3 pick of the Boston Celtics, Tatum came into the draft considered the most NBA-ready player of the class. He showed that at Summer League — he is a fluid athlete who knows how to knock down mid-range shots (and gets to his spots), he has great footwork for a young player, and can attack the rim. He tends to take and make difficult shots, but that will get harder against NBA-level defenders, and he didn’t often play-make for others. That said, he averaged 17.7 points and 8 rebounds per game.

Check out his best plays from Summer League, and if you’re a Celtics fan try not to drool too much.

Memphis Grizzlies sign former Oregon forward Dillon Brooks

Associated Press
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Memphis Grizzlies have signed former Oregon forward Dillon Brooks, a second-round pick in last month’s NBA draft.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

Brooks was selected by the Houston Rockets with the 45th overall pick. The Grizzlies acquired him in exchange for a future second-round pick.

Brooks, 21, averaged 16.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a junior at Oregon last season. He was named the Pac-12 player of the year and helped Oregon earn its first Final Four berth since 1939.