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


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.

Report: Minnesota still talking Tyus Jones trade, Sixers may have interest

TARRYTOWN, NY - AUGUST 08:  Tyus Jones #1 of the Minnesota Timberwolves poses for a portrait during the 2015 NBA rookie photo shoot on August 8, 2015 at the Madison Square Garden Training Facility in Tarrytown, New York. 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 Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Tyus Jones has a lot to like — he’s a point guard who makes good decisions, his shot is developing (40 percent from three at Summer League), and he’s got skills. Minnesota won the Summer League championship because of Jones’ leadership — just drafted and highly touted Kris Dunn was out for the title game, that’s where Jones shined.

But Dunn is the future at the point in Minnesota, and Ricky Rubio is still there. So Minnesota is seeing what might be out there for Jones, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Minnesota has had talks with Philadelphia, New Orleans, and others about Jones for a while.

Jones is likely a steady backup point guard at the NBA level — he’s a smart passer, knows how to run a team, and as his shot develops he becomes more dangerous. His downside is defense, but as a reserve that’s less of an issue.

For a team like the Sixers — without Jerryd Bayless to start the season — or while New Orleans waits for Jrue Holiday‘s return, Jones makes some sense. The only question is the price going back to Minnesota.

Report: Bucks preparing for Greg Monroe to opt in next summer

Milwaukee Bucks center Greg Monroe, center, drives to the basket against New Orleans Pelicans center Alexis Ajinca, left, and guard Tyreke Evans, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
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The Bucks got a rude awakening about Greg Monroe‘s value when they tried to sell low on him this offseason – and still got no takers.

Now, Milwaukee seems to have gotten the picture. Monroe – whose agent claimed the center could name his contract terms from multiple teams last year – might opt into the final year of his deal, which would pay $17,884,176.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Milwaukee is already preparing for the possibility Monroe opts into his deal for 2017-18, league sources say.

The Bucks indicated this thinking when they extended Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s contract, putting a large 2017-18 salary rather than a relatively low cap hold on the books to begin next offseason. If Monroe opts in, the difference in Antetokounmpo’s initial cap number is far less likely to matter. (Though Antetokounmpo’s extension wasn’t a complete giveaway into Milwaukee’s Monroe expectation, because the Bucks saved over the life of the extension.)

Don’t put it past Monroe to opt out if he believes he can find a better situation. After all, he signed the small qualifying offer to leave a tough basketball fit with Andre Drummond in Detroit. Monroe also took the risk of a shorter detail in Milwaukee. He’s secure enough in himself to at least consider moving on if he’s unhappy.

It’s also possible he finds a satisfying role with the Bucks. They’ll bring him off the bench, which could hide his defensive shortcomings and give him a chance to mash backup bigs. Heck, he could even play well enough to justify opting out.

There’s still a full season before Monroe must decide on his option, and a lot can change by then. But it seems Milwaukee now has a realistic expectation.

Report: NBA increases 2017-18 salary-cap projection to $103 million

AP Money Found

The NBA is reportedly closing in on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the new deal will still call for owners and players to split Basketball Related Income about 50-50.

So, July’s projection of a $102 million salary cap in 2017-18 still carries weight – except it’s been updated.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Why the change?

Perhaps, the shortfall adjustment – which increases the cap when teams don’t spend enough the previous year – is being revised in the new CBA.

More likely, the league anticipates more revenue. These projections tend to start conservative then rise as July nears.

Rip Hamilton says 2004 Pistons would beat 2016 Warriors

CLEVELAND - FEBRUARY 22:  Richard Hamilton #32 of the Detroit Pistons looks up during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on February 22, 2009 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  The Cavaliers won 99-78.  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 Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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Add Rip Hamilton to team #getoffmylawn.

The long list of veteran players who somehow feel their legacy is threatened by this era’s Golden State Warriors and their freestyling system has now added one of the key players from the 2004 Pistons title team to their ranks. CBS’ NBA Crossover asked the masked man Rip Hamilton about it, and he thought the vaunted Pistons defense was well designed for dealing with the Warriors.

“It would be no comparison.” Hamilton said on CBS Sports’ NBA Crossover. “We can guard every position. Every guy from our point guard to our five, can guard any position. We were big. We were long.”

Hamilton is right that it would be an interesting defensive matchup. The book on the Warriors — especially when facing the smaller “death lineup” — is to switch everything, and those Pistons would have been well suited to that task. Of course, there are two ends of the court and the Warriors are also a good defensive team going against a Pistons team that had limited offensive options (people underestimate how great Chauncey Billups was playing during that 2004 playoff run, he was elite, but that was not a deep offensive team). The real issue would have been pace — the Warriors want to play fast, the Pistons wanted to grind it out, who won that battle would be huge?

But that last graph talking strategy doesn’t address the biggest question: Whose rules are the games played under? 2016 or 2004?

Those 2004 Pistons were the height of the grabbing/hand-checking on the perimeter era that would be an automatic foul today. (There was a lot more hand checking uncalled in the NBA last season, but not the level of grabbing and holding that was allowed in 2004 and before back into the Jordan era.)

Tayshaun Prince said it well.

“It depends on what the rules are.” Prince said. “Because back when we played, we could play hands-on, physical. As you can see from the Pacers rivalries and all of the rivalries we had back in the day, we were scoring in the high 70s, low 80s. We were physical. So now if you play this style of play, where they’re running and gunning and touch fouls and things like that, all of sudden we would start getting in foul trouble because back when we played, we were very, very aggressive on defense.”

He gets it.

The Warriors are built for this era of basketball, one where the rules encourage space so players to have freedom and can be more creative with their playmaking. The Pistons were built for the 2004 physical games of that era. (And most of you who remember that era fondly do so through rose-colored glasses, there’s a reason ratings were down for those 84-78 slugfests.) It’s possible to have great teams built differently for different eras and say that’s okay.

But it’s the nature of sports fandom to compare things that can’t actually be compared apples to apples. So have at it in the comments (and I expect one person to tell us how Jordan was better than all of them, because somehow people always feel the need to defend his legacy in these debates).