LeBron James, Dwyane Wade

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, opponents at long last

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The initial reactions to the formation of the Miami Heat primarily stemmed from places of awe, of anger, and of bewilderment. It was a development unlike anything the NBA world had ever seen, and that people responded so strongly came as no surprise.

Yet eventually, those three very separate reactions were filtered into one. The unprecedented team sparked unprecedented public vitriol, as indignant fans, columnists, and opponents vented endlessly. They stood on a high ground propped up by their own constructions, citing everything from the destruction of competitive equity to disloyalty to the personality flaws of Miami’s stars. Something about this collaboration struck followers of the game as inherently wrong. Miami had built an empire in a day, and apparently — judging by the unrelenting hatred of some really good basketball players that wanted to play together rather than apart — it had to be destroyed. Comment by comment, tweet by tweet, brick by brick.

Lest we forget, that mission essentially began with the theoretical wedge that many tried to jam between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Big Two embedded within Miami’s Big Three. They were the true stars of the show, and with neither a standout jumpshooter, the first grounded (though unceasing) criticism of the team pointed out their supposed on-court incompatibilities. There were plenty of logical arguments made about where James and Wade might clash in terms of skill sets, but those sensible claims were reduced to taglines and repeated ad nauseum. Which one would lead? Which one would get the ball in crunch time? Which one would sit in the corner? Which one would run the pick-and-roll? James and Wade were pitted against each other more as teammates than they ever were as opponents, primarily due to the prescripted need to see some kind of conflict between them.

That was the plan, anyway. But James and Wade handled the pressures of the Heat’s season expertly, in no small part due to their deft decision to face the press as a duo. It wasn’t symbolism, but pragmatism; the two didn’t need to symbolize a joint front when they could literally create one that the media would be forced to encounter. No question would be thrown to Wade without LeBron within earshot and vice versa, and while that made it a bit tough for journalists digging for a salacious quote, it clarified the James-Wade dynamic: if they were pitted against each other, it was done so against their will and against their managed public appearance.

Until now.

For the first time in over a year, James and Wade have become opponents. Tickets for Saturday’s South Florida All-Star Classic — which pits Team LeBron against Team Wade — are selling like hot cakes, and while the James-Wade one-game rivalry isn’t the most compelling draw, one can’t help but wonder if it presents intrigue on some unconscious level.

James v. Wade is what the Heat faithful dreaded and so many sports fans craved, so much that the hypothetical (and false) conflict between the two was the dominant element of the team’s preseason storyline. Basketball fans finally have a chance to see that manufactured clash actualized, albeit in a form much more casual than was likely imagined. There will be no shouting matches or bad blood in the most star-laden of all the exhibition games thus far, but on the most fundamental level it will pit star against star in a way that the anticlimax of the season narrative never did. This, ladies and gentlemen, is as close as opposition gets for the leaders of the Miami Heat: James in one jersey and Wade in another, both smiling, playing, and working toward the same underlying cause.

DeMarcus Cousins says as of right now he wants to play in 2020 Tokyo Olympics

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 17:  Demarcus Cousins #12 of United States reacts in the first half while taking on Argentina during the Men's Quarterfinal match on Day 12 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Four years in the NBA is a couple of lifetimes away. GMs get paid to try and plan that far out, but the constantly shifting sands of the NBA — injuries, player improvement, new talents coming into the league, players changing teams, not to mention front office/ownership changes — make that a nearly impossible task. Nothing is set in stone that far out.

But if four years, DeMarcus Cousins wants to be playing for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics. Here is what he told Gary Washburn at the Boston Globe.

“I’m open to [coming back for Tokyo 2020]. I’ll be older then, so it depends on how my body feels. As of right now, where I’m at, absolutely, I’m open to it,” he said. “I think people don’t understand [how hard this winning is]. They see the guys on the roster and they think automatically, they’re supposed to win. This [international game] isn’t our game. This isn’t the way we play. This is an adjustment for every guy on the roster.

“No matter how much time there is, if guys can come together and mesh and play with some type of chemistry, you’re going to win games. It’s been proven in the past. We’ve had some of the most talented teams in the past and we didn’t win, so it’s not as easy as people think it is.”

I’m sure everyone on that team, save for Carmelo Anthony, is saying the same thing about returning for the next Olympics right now. We’ll see how things play out. C0usins certainly struggled to adjust to what is a foul in international ball (not to mention the inconsistent officiating) and spent much of Rio in foul trouble, but he was a monster in the gold medal game.

On another note, Cousins is right, the USA players face unreasonable expectations. They are unquestionably the most talented team in the Games, but with that and the history of USA Basketball they are expected to do more than win, they are expected to dominate. The 2016 team in Rio went undefeated and won gold, but because they had three tough games won by 10 or less — good Australian, French, and Serbian teams —, there was a lot of “what is wrong with Team USA?” talk.

The 2020 team will likely be even more talented — Cousins and Kevin Durant could well be joined by guys who skipped Rio such as Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis. However, the challenges will be the same: The rest of the world is getting better (watch out for Canada) and the USA will still be throwing a team together and trying to build chemistry on the fly.

But we still expect Gold.

After two years off court, Joel Embiid says he “probably” will have minutes restrictions

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers takes a shot from the bench prior to the game against the Utah Jazz on October 30, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 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 Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Joel Embiid could be the best player on the Philadelphia 76ers in a couple of years — many scouts had him the highest rated of all the first-round draft picks the Sixers have had in recent seasons.

But after two foot surgeries and two seasons sitting on the sidelines, we don’t know how good Embiid can be. We should find out starting in October when Embiid is part of the Sixers training camp. Embiid says he feels 100 percent, but he expects there will be restrictions on him at first, he told Jessica Camerato of CSNPhilly.com during the Sixers Beach Bash community event this weekend.

This is the smart move by the Sixers — they are not competing for a title, the games in November have minimal meaning long term, bring him along slowly and make sure he can make each step along the way. Let’s see what he can do, then worry about how much run he can get in games that matter.

It’s going to be interesting to watch how Embiid, Ben Simmons, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor all fit together up front — and which one of them gets traded this season.

Celtics’ Avery Bradley on defense: “Kyrie Irving, none of those guys scare me”

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 09:  Avery Bradley #0 of the Boston Celtics celebrates after scoring against the Memphis Grizzlies  during the first quarter at TD Garden on March 9, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Avery Bradley was first-team NBA All-Defensive team last season, and his coach Brad Stevens lobbied for him to get the honor. Bradley picks up guys full court, pesters, and plays physical — we can debate if he is as good defensively as his reputation, but guys like Damian Lillard think he’s tough to go up against.

Bradley, for his part, says he has no fear going up against the best. Here is what he said to Tom Westerholm of Masslive.com.

“I love the challenge,” Bradley said on Friday, making an appearance at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “I love going up against the best players. I don’t care who it is. I don’t care about getting embarrassed. I don’t care. Kyrie Irving, none of those guys scare me. I know some players in the NBA probably get butterflies before the game, but not me. I’m licking my lips. I come excited. They need to prepare for me at the end of the day. That’s how I think.”

That’s exactly the attitude you want an elite defender to have.

Bradley injured his hamstring in the first game of the playoffs last April and sat the rest of the Celtics’ one series. Then this summer his name came up in potential Jimmy Butler trade rumors (that deal never actually came close to getting off the ground). Expect Bradley to put that all behind him by the time training camp opens.

Watch highlights of LeBron James’ playoffs, Finals run

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LeBron James was dominant — the clear best player on the planet — when the Cleveland Cavaliers needed him most. That’s the reason Cleveland got its first major sports title in 52 years.

It’s the dead part of the NBA season — training camps don’t even open for a month — so why not enjoy a look back at LeBron’s amazing run to a legacy-defining NBA ring. Like you don’t have 15 minutes for this. What are you going to do, watch more preseason football?