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NBA Lockout: LeBron James and the kingdom ruled by knights

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source: Getty Images

In 1964, the players for the NBA All-Star Game refused to leave the locker room at the famed Boston Gardens. The game was going to be televised, a huge step forward for the league, and the players knew this was their best chance at getting the owners by their tender parts. They refused to walk onto the floor unless the league recognized their union and promised a pension plan, paving the way for the players to finally start having some say in how the league they drove was run.

That was the first spark. Bill Russell, as documented in Aram Goudsouzian’s “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the basketball revolution,” was one of the most adamant in refusing to play. The players eventually played, disaster was averted, but from there on out, the power dynamic has shifted. At the time, the owners’ refused to acknowledge the players’ position and were outraged at the defiance.

Not much has changed.

In 1970, Oscar Robertson, as head of the NBPA, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NBA in pursuit of blocking the NBA-ABA merger, reforming the draft, and freeing players from being bound to one team. Can you imagine a world where if you were a star drafted by a team, you had no alternative than to stick with that franchise barring a trade? It took six years for the suit to be settled, but in 1976, NBA free agency was born. If Russell and the 1964 All-Stars had shown the owners they had fists and teeth, the Robertson suit was what showed the owners they were prepared to use them.

From the New York Times in 1988:

”What we’re going to do is discuss whether to proceed with our antitrust suit as expeditiously as possible, a work stoppage during the regular season, All-Star Game or playoffs, to cease having the union as being the bargaining agent for the players or a combination of any of the above,” Larry Fleisher, the general counsel of the National Basketball Players Association, said in an interview yesterday.

The players, who are seeking to eliminate the college draft, the right of first refusal and the salary cap, have been without a labor agreement since last June.

Since June, there was a three-and-a-half-month moratorium on player transactions, but that failed to hasten negotiations. The players have filed an antitrust suit in Federal District Court in Newark, and the league has countered with an unfair labor practices suit against the players hoping to bring them back to the bargaining table. There have been nine fruitless bargaining sessions.

via N.B.A. Union Hints at Strike – New York Times.

And in 1999, the NBA instituted its first lockout, killing half a season and destroying the sport’s lingering momentum following the exodus of Jordan’s Bulls, primarily because of the strength of Kevin Garnett and his six-year, $126 million contract.

The point I’m trying to make is that this battle has been going on for a very, very long time.

There’s a common mistake made in regards to these labor disputes, that they are about one thing. They are about money. They are about pride. They are about power. They are about labor strength. They are about employer rights. They are about all of these things, and somewhere running as a vein underneath the black, ashen skin of this decades long standoff is this: they are about the power of the individual player.

In short, the teams want to be the brand, the product, the market, the control. They want the players to be the asset, the employee, the robotic function of the system the team structure creates. You can argue that end point is about money. But it also speaks to ideological divides over whether the young, yes, in most cases black athlete should have the strength and power to determine his or her own basketball destiny.

And that’s where we reach this new group of superstars, smack dab in the middle of the whirlwind.

There were rumors as far back as 2008 that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh had a plan to play together. Particularly Wade and James were connected, each finding a friendship in one another born of stardom. But the “brat pack” or whatever name you want to identify them as goes so much further than those two. One of James’ best friends is Chris Paul. They are thick as thieves, those two plus Paul’s brother. Carmelo Anthony? Also very much part of the group. These players are the actualization of years of player empowerment. It’s part of what makes people so repulsed by them, the attitude is “This game is ours, and we’ll run it as we see fit.” That doesn’t go over well with a team-centric American spirit that believes in truth, justice, and the American role player’s way. We idolize above-average defenders who can’t score while scorning gunners. And while these players are complete (ok, that might be a bit extreme with Carmelo, but roll with it), they are still icons of individual dominance.

The older players have taken center stage in this current conflict, most notably Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and, I’ll admit it, scapegoat Kevin Garnett with their little exhibition in front of the owners, according to reports. I’ve blasted and mocked Garnett for his antics. They were unproductive and unprofessional, if reports are to believed. But they’re also not anything most players wouldn’t do or wouldn’t like to do. While I think lionizing Garnett under some obscenely veiled “he’s not a hero” (like John McClain wasn’t a hero, is the subtext there) is a bit much, it doesn’t alter the fact that Garnett just had the guts to say what most players want to but can’t because they don’t have the power. It was an exhibition of power.

Just like “The Decision.”

I’ve made the argument in the past that there’s more of a bloodline between Garnett and James through their responses to adversity and exertion of their power in finding better places to contend. But what’s revealing in this context is that James and Garnett are both champions of the power of a player, just through different means. Garnett yells and spits and screams and broods, that’s how he found his way out of Minnesota. Never turning his back on the fans or even the team, but clawing at the cage and disturbing the others enough to where the Wolves were forced to send him elsewhere. James, on the other hand, isn’t as dramatic or unrestrained, he’s the opposite, preferring to preen and smile while popping on a pair of designer shades. The Russell-Wilt comparison isn’t insane here, if you’re just talking about approach. (It should be noted here that Wilt was also the first player, reportedly, to want to end the boycott at the ’64 All-Star Game, so that, along with pretty much everything about both players’ games, makes this comparison chemically unstable. Again, just go with it, I’m rolling.)

Consider this from the Arizona Republic Saturday:

(Note: Forgive the extensive blockquote, please go read the entire article which is quite good, if only for food for thought, even if it’s a bit uneven on the pro-owner side.)

Behind the scenes, during the 2008 Olympics, James’ status among fellow players was impossible to miss. While Kobe Bryant acted like a perfect student around head coach Mike Krzyzewski, James struck a different pose. He wore bulky headphones to most open media sessions, making it clear he was off limits until he chose otherwise.

Once, Jerry Colangelo imported the late Myles Brand to speak to the Olympians. When Brand identified himself as president of the NCAA, James interrupted the speech with a shout from the back of the room.

“Of who?” he said.

“The NCAA,” Brand responded.

“I missed you, man,” he said. “My bad.”

The joke was inappropriate and yet hysterical. James was pointing out that he didn’t know Brand because he didn’t need college to get where he was going. You could almost hear his teammates bursting with laughter, yet they remained governed by a sense of restraint.

Later, I asked Wade about James’ brand of leadership, and why fellow players seemed to gravitate to him.

“He’ll say anything to anybody at anytime,” Wade said with near reverence.

At times, James might be misguided and tone-deaf. In a recent negotiating session, it was explained to James that the 43 percent of basketball-related income received by owners was not profit, rather a number that came before operating expenses.

According to a source, James replied, “Well, I have expenses, too.”

via NBA players elicit a stern warning as lockout rolls on.

Well, it isn’t quite “I’ve got a family to feed” or “We make a lot of money but we also spend a lot of money,” but had this been public, it would have been right up there on the Family Feud board for “things you can say which will destroy your PR positioning with fans during a labor dispute.”

Nothing better crystallizes the perceived arrogance of LeBron James better than that, or the dichotomy that exists. Many will be quick to point out the widely held belief that the players in fact find James’ arrogance distasteful. But consider the difference between how a player finds an opponent on the floor, or as a teammate, and how they consider him as a leader for their industry, as an example, as a leader for strength. LeBron James took the power fought for by Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson and translated it into the perfect… okay, nearly perfect re-organization of the sport’s DNA. He shifted the balance of power in the NBA over the next six years, even if they don’t win a championship, the path goes through Miami. He showed that a player can enter free agency, and not only go where he wants, but get a sign-and-trade to get the extra year he wants on the deal, and do it alongside two of his best friends.

The quote from James above is also a continuation of what we’ve seen from James and his crew. Chris Paul is on the labor committee, the smartest of all that group, quietly working to do what’s best for the players and control the interests of both his superstar friends, and the majority of the union made up in role players. Dwyane Wade reportedly told David Stern to get his finger out of his face, saying “I’m not your child.” Is there any clearer image of the divide than that? Wade, the friendly, championship-ring-bearing hyper-marketed superstar telling the league’s commissioner to treat him as the power entity he is and not as a burger-flipper taking too long on his lunch break. (Note: I’ve been that burger flipper who took too long on his lunch break. Those jobs suuuuck and it’s one of the reasons I still find the players’ position unpalatable. Burger-flippers work hard, too!)

Wade’s outburst was his Michael Jordan moment, where Jordan laughed off owner Abe Pollin and said if he can’t compete to sell his team. If James is the rod, and Paul the handle, then Wade is the tip of the spear.

When Carmelo Anthony was traded to the New York Knicks, I described it as an example of the new NBA player power structure. Anthony, again, close friend of Wade and James, manipulated his way not only out of Denver, where he didn’t want to be, but to the Knicks, where he specifically wanted to go. Lots of players have forced their way into a trade over the years. Tons. But few have been able to point to the NBA map, to a team already laden with salary and a superstar, with few assets to return (but Isiah Thomas still found a way to give up too much!), and say “There. That’s where you’ll trade me.”

The shortening of players’ contracts, the extreme luxury tax penalties, the Bird rights reforms, the pursuit of the elimination of the sign-and-trade, where do you think these things come from on the owners’ part? They’re trying to stabilize their economic model, that’s certain. But to do so, they know they have to regain power. They can’t sit by and watch a league that became driven by superstars starting with Magic and Bird, the only way the league survived, much less flourished, be controlled by those superstars. It’s fine to market those stars, to demand they smile for promos, do all the appearances, act and dress the way the owners need them to in order to make the league more popular. But those same players can’t control what happens in the league. That has to be the owners’ prerogative, in their minds.

Owners: “We have the money, we should have the power.”

Players: “We are the brand, and we will take what is rightfully ours.”

This has been going on since before 1964. From All-Star boycotts to antitrust suits to threats and Garnett all the way to “The Decision” and the looming force of Dwight Howard threatening to once again render the league’s landscape entirely reformed in the summer of 2012, this is about money, it’s about economics, it’s about labor law, it’s certainly about ego (past: Dan Gilbert, and future: the Orlando Magic). But it’s also about the power of the man who owns the floor, the ball, the court, the logo (but not the arena!) vs. the man who controls the hand that dribbles, passes, defends, and scores.

When you look at the history of this conflict, from ’64 all the way to the Decision and beyond, and you consider the racial implications which cannot be avoided in this context, the bitterness over what is essentially 2 percentage points, and quickly becoming less money than will be lost in a further-prolonged lockout becomes more understandable. It’s absurd, and it’s frustrating, and it’s disappointing, all at the same time. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have seen it coming.

It’s the modern NBA mythological history. The owners in search of their gold, and the players in search of their destiny.

Grizzlies healthy, excited for training camp with new coach

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33), of Spain, poses for a picture on NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Associated Press
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Marc Gasol‘s surgically repaired right foot is healthy, and the Memphis Grizzlies center insists he’s back – perhaps better than ever.

Point guard Mike Conley is healthy too, his aching Achilles a distant memory. Jarell Martin‘s own left foot is as healthy as it’s been in a long time.

Chandler Parsons, the Grizzlies’ big free agent signee this summer , is the only person still recovering from his own knee surgery as the Grizzlies held media day Monday. It’s a welcome change for a franchise that set a dubious NBA mark last season playing 28 different players due to injuries that ravaged the roster, giving new coach David Fizdale a healthy roster for the start of training camp Tuesday.

The Grizzlies still reached the playoffs only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

“Last year, man it was tough with all the injuries, especially the playoffs not having a full-strength team, so it was very tough,” forward Zach Randolph said Monday. “Now we all healthy, and now we looking at the big picture and that’s getting a championship and getting a ring.”

Losing Gasol was the biggest hit. Memphis was fifth in the Western Conference on Feb. 8 when Gasol last played and slipped to the No. 7 seed as the injuries mounted. He had surgery to repair a non-displaced fracture in the navicular bone of his right foot Feb. 20, starting a long rehabilitation process to return him to the court.

Recovery kept Gasol from playing for Spain during the Olympics, though the center wanted to play. He followed all the doctors’ orders and stuck with his rehabilitation. Gasol said he’s never felt any discomfort in his foot, which makes him confident the repair worked. He’s now ready to help lead the Grizzlies back to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2013 and even further to a place Memphis has never been: the NBA Finals.

“I’m confident that I have the capability of not just being the same player, but better,” Gasol said. “Better player, more productive, more consistent. Hopefully a better rebounder. … It’s going to be a challenge for me, but I’m up for it. I’m up for any challenge. I love challenges, and this year’s going to be another one.”

Guard Tony Allen said Gasol looks like he’s added to his game, noting the man nicknamed Big Spain knocked down six straight 3s in a pickup game recently.

Being healthy isn’t the only difference for Memphis from the end of last season. The Grizzlies start training camp Tuesday with a new coach in Fizdale , a long-time Miami Heat assistant who Memphis hired in late May after firing Dave Joerger who was then hired by Sacramento.

The Grizzlies also announced Monday they hired a new medical director in Allen Gruver, promoted Jim Scholler to head athletic trainer and added Eric Oetter as director of performance. Conley said the Grizzlies have bolstered the staff to help players, even adding massage therapists to help with recovery.

Fizdale also suggested to the Grizzlies that they show up a couple weeks early and play together to start building chemistry and conditioning. Fizdale said he couldn’t make them do it, and he liked how they listened. Managing Gasol’s minutes will be a big focus for Fizdale who plans to pull him early from some practices and keep him out of some games through the season.

“I’m definitely going to preserve him,” Fizdale said. “I don’t want to kill him throughout the year and don’t have him for the playoffs so it’ll be very mindful of how I attack him coming back from an injury.”

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

Life without Tim Duncan begins for the new-look Spurs

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich addresses the media during an NBA basketball news conference, Tuesday, July 12, 2016, in San Antonio, the day after Tim Duncan announced his retirement. Popovich wore a T-shirt with the likeness of Duncan as he reflected on his relationship with the 19-year Spurs veteran and talked about his contributions to the team and to him personally. (Kin Man Hui/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Life without Tim Duncan has officially begun for the San Antonio Spurs, even if they aren’t quite ready to accept it.

For the first time since Bill Clinton was in the White House and “Men In Black” was a box office hit, the Spurs will open training camp without Duncan.

During the team’s annual media day Monday, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich joked that Duncan is being fined daily – “$2,500 a day, every day that he does not show up.”

“I wasn’t here with him that long so it’s not as dramatic for me as it will be for everybody else, but it definitely feels like he should walk in any moment but he hasn’t yet,” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge said.

Duncan retired in July after 19 seasons as arguably the greatest power forward of all time. A two-time MVP, Duncan led San Antonio to five NBA titles and helped set a selfless, team-first standard that is the envy of many sports franchises.

The transition from the Spurs’ reliance on the Big Three of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili began in earnest last season with the addition of Aldridge and the continued growth of Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio continued the makeover in the offseason with the signing of Pau Gasol, but that doesn’t soften the blow of losing Duncan.

“I think it’s going to hit me more tomorrow when we get on the court,” Parker said. “We’re definitely going to miss him. You can’t replace a guy like that. He’s been the face of the franchise for the last two decades. It’s going to be weird. It’s going to be weird without him, especially now that we have a lot of young guys, a lot of new faces and so it’s going to be a lot of teaching to do at the beginning of the season.”

Duncan will attend some practices to assist with coaching, but it will be up to Parker, Ginobili and the other veterans to acclimate the largest number of new faces in Popovich’s 20 seasons as Spurs coach.

San Antonio added 11 new players to its training camp roster, including rookies Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans and free agents like Gasol and David Lee.

“It’s a lot of fun just to think about new bodies and new blood in the gym,” Popovich said. “Not just the players, the staff. I don’t know half of the names of the new staff we hired in the film room, interns and management and all that kind of thing. A lot of people walking around, both players and staff. It will be exciting who comes up with what ideas, who plays well and who fits together.”

Gasol is the most critical addition. Entering his 17th season, the 7-foot center has won two NBA championships and made his sixth All-Star appearance last season while with the Chicago Bulls.

Stepping into Duncan’s place in the starting lineup will be one of the biggest challenges of his career.

“Tim has been so exceptional and unique,” Gasol said. “He is considered by most of us the best power forward that has ever played the game. So, I’m not coming here to fill his shoes and the spot that he left, but I’m here to make the best that I can to fit in as best as I can and to work with the guys that are here to win a title and work as hard as I can to do that. It’s an opportunity, it’s a privilege but at the same time, it’s a huge challenge.”

Gasol’s presence will help ease the burden on Leonard and Aldridge.

The All-Star forwards led San Antonio to a franchise-record 67 victories last season before falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals.

“I think everybody has to take on that burden,” Aldridge said. “It’s not a one-player’s job, no one can be Tim Duncan. It’s going to be everyone’s job.”

Jason Kidd plans to bring Greg Monroe off Bucks’ bench, which is news to Monroe

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 20:  Head coach Jason Kidd of the Milwaukee Bucks stands on the court during introductions to the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 20, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Bucks defeated the Suns 101-95. 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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The Bucks spent most of the summer trying to trade Greg Monroe, and the asking price was rumored to be so low most of the buzz around the league was a deal would get done. Except to trade Monroe another team had to want Monroe, and therein lied the rub.

Monroe was at Bucks media day on Monday, and coach Jason Kidd announced he plans to bring Monroe in off the bench. That got interesting. From Gery Woelfel of the of the Racine Journal Times:

It shouldn’t be news, Kidd brought Monroe off the bench for part of last season, too.

If Monroe doesn’t start, it means John Henson or Miles Plumlee will start (unless Kidd wants to go crazy small and start Mirza Teletovic).

The real takeaway here: Don’t draft Monroe on your fantasy team. And expect him to get traded at some point this season.

Draymond Green says he will stand for anthem, criticism of Kaepernick “ridiculous”

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry conducts an interview during NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Associated Press
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I’ve said this before: while there will be national anthem protests once the NBA starts playing games in a couple of weeks, don’t expect it from the biggest names — the guys with the biggest international brands to promote. At the same time, expect all those guys to back Collin Kaepernick and others who have done these protests.

The latest example came from the Golden State Warriors media day and Draymond Green. Here is what he said in a passionate talk about the protests, via Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News.

I respect Colin for that because he took a stand, that he knew would probably create some controversy. And he didn’t care. And I respect that because sometimes controversy is needed in order to get the point across. And I think he’s gotten his point across. But my question is like what’s next?…

And of course if everyone wants to talk about Colin, and he’s disrespecting America. No, we’re going to talk about what he’s doing and try to sweep what he’s really talking about under the rug. I think it’s quite ridiculous, to be quite frank. Am I going to kneel down and put my fist up, no I’m not. That’s no disrespect to Colin or anybody else that’s doing it. But they’ve gotten the point across. I don’t think I need to come out and do a National Anthem protest. Because it’s already been started. There’s already a conversation.

What Green is asking is what a lot of people — athletes, activists, people who care about this country — are asking: What kind of actions, what kinds of change can come out of the start of this conversation? Because the question isn’t about respect for the flag or lack thereof — that’s a side issue, a distraction from people who don’t want to talk about race in America and the challenges we still face as a nation in that area. Some of these police shootings are a brutal reminder of how far this nation has to go, but they are just part of a broader issue.

Stephen Curry — whose hometown of Charlotte has experienced rioting after a police shooting in recent days — also was asked about the protest issue and struck a similar tone. Here’s his answer via Sam Amick of the USA Today.

“I respect everybody’s voice, everybody’s platform, and their opportunity and right to protest what they feel in their heart is something they want changed. I’ve said that plenty of times about Colin. I respect what he’s doing. I respect the message that he’s fighting for, and I hope all the spotlight is on that particular message and the things we can do to make changes that are blatantly obvious we need change, so I hope going forward it’s not about who’s raising their fist, who’s kneeling, who’s standing, who’s doing this or that. It’s about what Colin and other guys – what the message is, and what we don’t want to stand for any more.”