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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.

Kevin Durant gets first taste of playing with Warriors teammates in USA exhibition

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 22:  Kevin Durant #5 of the United States drives against Facundo Campazzo #7 of Argentina during a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena on July 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The United States won 111-74.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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LAS VEGAS — It wasn’t the highest of stakes, but after a heavily hyped announcement and all the fallout that resulted from it, Kevin Durant has now played organized basketball with some of his new Golden State Warriors teammates.

In a 111-74 blowout win over Argentina in an exhibition game at Las Vegas’ brand-new T-Mobile Arena, Durant shared the court with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, who will make up three-fifths of the most formidable starting lineup in the NBA. Durant looked plenty comfortable, leading all scorers with 23 points on 7-of-12 shooting and making four three-pointers. Thompson and Green came off the bench, but the three Warriors shared the court in the second quarter.

Not that Durant was really thinking about it.

“I was just lost in the game,” he said afterwards. “I didn’t really notice, I was lost in the game and trying to play the right way. We worry about what Coach K wants us to do. I’m sure they felt the same way. We didn’t talk about it.”

Green concurred.

“It was great,” he said of playing with Durant for the first time. “You don’t really pay attention to the fact that we’re teammates [in the NBA]. We’re all teammates. We’re all going for the same goal.”

To be sure, these exhibition games — and even the real games in Rio next month — are nothing like what the Warriors will experience playing together when the regular season kicks off in the fall. The Olympics feature the top talent from all over the world, but the disparity in talent between the USA’s group and any other country is so staggering that most of the games are likely going to turn out like this one.

Green didn’t want to compare this experience with something like the NBA Finals.

“It’s a little different,” Green said. “Because when you’re in the Finals, No. 1 you play a team seven times, No. 2 you already know the guys. We know [Manu] Ginobili, [Andres] Nocioni, [Luis] Scola. We’ve played against those guys a bunch of times, but not at a level where you know everything they do. When you’re in the Finals, I know everything Kyrie does. It’s just a matter of, can you stop it or not? Just because you know he’s gonna do it doesn’t mean you can stop it. Here, it’s a little different because of these guys we’ve never played before.”

Next week, Durant will play his first game at his new home when the USA faces off with China on Tuesday in Oakland. They’re all looking forward to it, especially Green.

“Definitely looking forward to getting back home,” Green said. “I think it will be something special, especially with the KD announcement. Him coming in there for the first time with a USA jersey. It’ll be pretty unique.”

The last time Durant played at Oracle Arena, the circumstances were very different. Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder took an unexpected 3-1 lead over the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals before dropping three straight games, leading to a Warriors trip to the Finals and, ultimately, Durant’s exit from Oklahoma City.

This time around, Durant will have the fans at Oracle on his side. Not that he needs any preparation.

Said Green, with a smile: “He knows all about Oracle.”

NBA, New Orleans ‘deep in negotiations’ for 2017 All-Star game

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 16:  Western Conference Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors moves the ball across mid court during 2014 NBA All-Star game against the Eastern Conference at the Smoothie King Center on February 16, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The East defeated the West 163-155.  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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NEW YORK — As the NBA looks for a new home for the 2017 All-Star Game, cities are lining up with open arms to welcome LeBron James, Stephen Curry and the hundred million or so dollars the festivities would bring to the local economy.

New Orleans is the favorite, a person close to the situation told The Associated Press. The person said the league and city are “deep in negotiations” to stage the game there for a third time. The person spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because the details of the discussions have not been publicly announced.

The league moved the game out of Charlotte on Thursday because of its objections to a North Carolina law that limits anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people. The league also said it hoped to announce a new location for next February’s events shortly and will reschedule the 2019 game for Charlotte if there is a resolution to the matter.

Even before the announcement, the league had heard from cities that were available and interested in taking over the weekend – which has grown into more like a week.

Besides having open dates in arenas, cities would need to have necessary hotel space. Officials from several have expressed interest, including Boston and Atlanta.

But New Orleans, with its good February weather and endless entertainment options, is the “heavy favorite,” the person told AP.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has said in a statement it would be an “honor” to have the game return to New Orleans.

“Louisiana is rich in diversity of heritage, culture, cuisine and people, and we believe the NBA could not select a better place for everyone to come and enjoy this spectacular sporting event,” he said.

Besides multiple Super Bowls and college football bowl games, New Orleans hosted the 2008 and 2014 NBA All-Star Games. The city is easily walkable and has moderate temperatures that time of year, a bonus after frigid temperatures the last two years in New York and Toronto.

The NBA announced plans for the 2008 game just nine months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. The weekend brought about $100 million into the city to aid its recovery, and now New Orleans could benefit again because of Charlotte’s loss.

The National Basketball Players Association said Friday it supported the league’s decision to move the game that would have been in Curry’s hometown.

“North Carolina is home to a sizable number of current and former NBPA members. They and our entire membership looked forward to participating in the All-Star week activities in the Charlotte community,” the union said in a statement. “However, the enactment of legislation that challenges the right of all Americans from discrimination threatened the ability of every attendee to enjoy the All-Star festivities.”

Northern cities were excluded for years due to owners’ preferences for warm weather. But with the league being open to those locations under Commissioner Adam Silver, cities such as Cleveland, Portland and Boston have shown interest in hosting an All-Star Game.

Orlando held the 2012 game, boasts loads of hotel and entertainment options, and could be a fitting choice for the LGBT community after a gunman killed 49 patrons at a gay nightclub in the city last month.

But with the league hoping to announce a new destination in the coming weeks, New Orleans is “well on its way” to being selected, the official said.

“It would be an honor to have this event return to New Orleans, and we look forward to sharing our hospitality with basketball fans from around the country,” Edwards said. “My office will support and assist Tom Benson and the New Orleans Pelicans in any way possible to help bring the NBA All-Stars back.”

Hornets president: NBA assured Charlotte 2019 All-Star game if North Carolina law changes

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When pulling the 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte, the NBA said it hoped to hold the 2019 event there. (2018 is already scheduled for Los Angeles.)

It seems the 2019 plans are more concrete than just hoping.

Katherine Peralta and Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer:

Hornets President Fred Whitfield told the Observer the NBA has no plans to put 2019 – the next available All-Star Weekend – out to general bid.

“We’ve been assured if the HB2 situation is resolved, we’ll be hosting” All-Star Weekend, Whitfield said.

I wonder whether this was before or after the league office read Hornets minority owner Felix Sabates’ email.

Even beyond Sabates — no small thorn — there’s no guaranteed North Carolina’s anti-gay law is satisfactorily modified. The state’s lawmakers have dug in their heels.

But no matter what’s happening now, 2019 is a long way off. It seems the NBA will — once again — give Charlotte as much time as possible to be a suitable location for the All-Star game.

Jae Crowder told Al Horford not to sign with the Wizards because they couldn’t beat Celtics

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 19:  Al Horford #15 of the Atlanta Hawks battles for a rebound against Jae Crowder #99 of the Boston Celtics in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on April 19, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Celtics forward Jae Crowder is going scorched earth.

Kevin Durant and the Warriors? Check.

Raptors? Check.

Wizards?

Crowder on newly signed Boston center Al Horford, who also considered the Wizards, via Tom Westerholm of MassLive:

“He’s a perfect fit,” Crowder said. “That’s what we were telling him. He had Washington and some other teams looking at him, but we beat them four times this year. You don’t want to go there.

This is the tamest of Crowder’s rampages. Bust lest you think it’s just an innocent statement of facts — the Celtics were 4-0 against Washington this year — Wizards center Marcin Gortat seemed to take it more personally:

Interestingly, Gortat is probably still starting only because Washington missed out on Durant. Starting over Ian Mahinmi is one thing. Gortat probably would’ve had to move to the bench for Horford.

Whatever his role, Gortat will have a little more motivation against the Celtics — just like the Warriors and Raptors will.