Players have avoided getting their hands dirty, but will the PR high road pay off?

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A dozen radio shows play soundbites of his voice on loop. There’s talk of competitive equity, of the struggling economy, and of players with inflated contracts. One calm voice meanders through accusation after accusation, and countless listeners on a dozen frequencies swim in the carefully manufactured bile. Somewhere, David Stern cracks a slight, sly smile.

The NBA has been on an all-out offensive over the last 48 hours, with Stern acting as a mouthpiece for the league’s owners. He’s been on major media channels of all kinds offering something that only vaguely resembles the truth, all while Billy Hunter, Derek Fisher, and virtually all of the members of the NBPA have remained civil. The attack rhetoric has been largely one-sided, and the players — by design — have opted to maintain an air of professionalism. Dwyane Wade noted as such to Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

Wade said the NBA has done an “amazing” job in getting its message out to basketball fans during the lockout. Players, he said, have not wanted to take the same approach as the NBA on the battle of perception.

“We haven’t done a great job of complaining,” Wade said. “That’s what the NBA has done, they’ve done a great job of complaining. We haven’t done a great job of that so no one sees our side. They more so see the owners’ side.”

…”Not at one point have we asked for more money,” Wade said. “I’ve heard people say ‘The players are being greedy.’ How are we being greedy? … People need to get in a room and understand what really needs to be done so everyone – not just the owners, not just the players – can continue to grow with the game. That’s where we’ve got to come to an agreement.”

The players’ general lockout strategy may not be perfect, but there is some nobility in this particular element of it. Compromise is a tough sell when one group is publicly antagonizing the other, and though both parties agreed to a more peaceful media approach just weeks ago, Stern has already reverted form. The man creates rules and violates them, just as he knows the facts and chooses to publicly skew them. That kind of disingenuous behavior isn’t a good look for Stern, but it may not matter; the owners’ message is the only message, and a general public with quick tongues and a poor understanding of the lockout (as evidenced by the many still calling this a “strike,” or citing player greed) will soon replicate Stern’s soundbites. The players are trusting the fans and remaining professional, but that path could end up burning them. The high road has its costs, and we’ll soon find out if the players are willing to continue paying them.

It’s unknown exactly how the lockout’s PR front has or will affect things at the negotiating table, but it seems fairly unlikely that those outside of an informed minority will ever know of Stern’s insidious spin. He’ll continue to spew falsehoods at little risk, and it’s up to the Union to decide if they’re willing to sink to Stern’s level and play his game. Derek Fisher and Billy Hunter appeared fairly frustrated with the nature of Stern’s comments and gestures after the Union meeting on Friday, but whether their reactions were a brief slip or the beginning of something more remains to be seen. The NBPA’s leadership has some soul-searching to do.

Cavaliers beat Raptors, become first team in 27 years to surrender 79 first-half points and win

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The Cavaliers haven’t been good enough throughout the season, especially defensively. The Raptors have – offensively, defensively, starters, bench. Hope has grown in Toronto of winning the Eastern Conference after getting eliminated by Cleveland the last two years.

But LeBron James and Cavs showed why it’s hard to pick any other team – even the first-place Raptors – to win the East in a 132-129 win over Toronto tonight.

Cleveland allowed 79 first-half points and fell behind by 15. But a LeBron-led offense was just too potent. This was the first time since 1990 (Nuggets over Spurs after trailing 90-83) a team surrendered so many first-half points then still won.

LeBron finished with 35 points, 17 assists and no turnovers. No forward has ever dished so many assists without a turnover in Basketball-Reference’s database, which dates back to 1963-64.

And LeBron led the Cavaliers to this win despite Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Korver and Cedi Osman being out.

It’s only one game, and it was in Cleveland. But even with home-court advantage in a potential playoff series, the Raptors must grapple with even more lingering doubt now about their ability to beat the Cavs.

Report: Becky Hammon staying with Spurs, not coaching Colorado State men’s team

AP Photo/Darren Abate
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Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was a candidate to coach the men’s team at Colorado State, her alma mater. That would have made her the first woman to coach a Division I men’s team.

Alas, it won’t happen.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports:

It’s unclear whether Hammon was ever actually offered the job.

She’s still on the right track for a head-coaching job somewhere. Most importantly, by all accounts, she’s doing good work in San Antonio. There’s also more attention on her career because of her pioneering status, and that will appeal to some teams.

This dalliance with Colorado State raises her profile even further and shows just how close she is.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: James Harden ‘best offensive player I’ve ever seen’

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

James Harden torched a solid Trail Blazers defense for 42 points on 13-of-25 shooting, including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers, and seven assists.

That prompted his coach to heap praise on the runaway MVP.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Harden. “They’re running guys to him and he just steps a little further back and makes a 3. The way he can pass and see the floor, get layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those step-back 3s.

“It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

At first, that sounds like hyperbole from a biased source. But Harden might actually the best offensive player ever. (D’Antoni has been around for all the major contenders.)

Michael Jordan gets overlooked because he was also excellent defensively. Ditto LeBron James to a lesser extent. Another contender: Stephen Curry, whose Warriors might file away D’Antoni’s assessment for if they meet Houston in the playoffs. (The Rockets provide plenty of motivational fodder.)

The list of contenders definitely skews toward the present. Players have gotten progressively more skilled, especially the generation that grew up with the 3-point arc and didn’t suddenly have to adjust to it.

And Harden might be the cream of the crop. He’s an incredible shooter with very deep range off the dribble or spotting up, and he can drive with the best of them. Yes, foul-drawing is a skill. Harden’s combination of scoring volume and efficiency is unprecedented. He’s also an impressive passer, a skill fully unleashed by D’Antoni making Harden a point guard.

I think I’d lean toward Curry, who’s an even better shooter and screener. But it’s very close, and Harden keeps raising his level. Curry probably peaked two years ago (though he obviously remains elite). I definitely wouldn’t dismiss anyone who picks Harden as biased or misguided.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP

It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.