This isn’t Kobe vs. LeBron, it’s Heat break vs. Lakers big men

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Thursday night’s showdown in South Beach is not Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James.

Not totally. Yes, they are the league’s top two scorers, but LeBron is a game time decision after being sent home sick from shoot around. He’s been fighting a cold for a few days. Either way, you can be sure Kobe is using LeBron as motivation — he uses everything, including the guy who cut his car off on the way to the arena, as motivation — but the outcome will have more to do with how the other eight players on the court step up. And which team has the will to force its style on the other.

It will be hyped as a rivalry, but the Heat and Lakers aren’t even really rivals. There are about 20 teams that think they are the Lakers rivals, and near the same number saying that about the Heat the last few years. But real rivalries are born out of playoff battles. Kobe and LeBron, the Lakers and Heat have never met with anything more than a regular season win on the line.

What Thursday night’s showdown will be is fun. And a measuring stick to a degree, but mostly it will be entertaining. Must-watch television.

There are two two key to this game — Miami’s “big men” versus the long Los Angeles front line; and the Lakers sloppy transition defense against the new up-tempo, chaos theory Heat.

Miami’s goal, even with Dwyane Wade likely sitting out again due to his sprained ankle, is to run. They use pressure defense to create turnovers and misses and then try to get out in transition with LeBron — exactly like what they did in the second half against San Antonio. Miami plays at the second fastest pace in the league (97.6 possessions a game) and has the fourth most efficient offense because of it (105.7 points per 100 possessions). (Stats via Hoopdata.)

The Lakers have been terrible in transition defense this season. If the Heat can push the tempo they can run away with this game in every sense.

How the Lakers can slow this game is in the paint — Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony are no match for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. It is why the Heat may even play Eddy Curry. If the Lakers pound the ball in the paint to their bigs, force the Heat defense to collapse and make them take the ball out of the basket, Los Angeles can get back and set up its defense. When they are set, the length of Bynum and the Lakers front line can make it hard to get to the rim and turn the Heat into half-court jump shooters. Which is how you beat them (and why a zone defense can be effective).

It really comes down to this battle of style and wills — can the Lakers pound the ball inside, can the Heat get out and run. That is what will decide this game.

Well, that and if Kobe or LeBron just go off. That can always happen.

PBT Extra: Cavaliers’ new GM aces first big test with Kyrie Irving trade

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Everyone in the NBA — heck, nearly everyone living in the Western hemisphere — knew Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland. That should kill the Cavaliers’ leverage and make it hard to get enough quality back.

New GM Koby Altman — the guy thrust into the job when David Griffin was shown the door — pulled it off brilliantly.

That’s what I talk about in this new PBT Extra. With Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, the Cavaliers remain the team to beat in the East this season. The Brooklyn Nets pick gives them flexibility going forward, whatever LeBron James decides to do next season.

First time at the plate in the big leagues and Altman crushed it to straight away center field.

Cavaliers-Celtics deal first offseason trade involving players who just met in NBA Finals or conference finals

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The Cavaliers and Celtics played in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. The teams were widely expected to meet there again.

Yet, Cleveland and Boston just completed a blockbuster trade – Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick.

That seemed odd.

In fact, it’s unprecedented.

That is an incredible fact, one which speaks to LeBron Jamescachet. The Cavs are emphasizing this season, LeBron’s last before a player option, by loading up with veterans Thomas and Crowder. With LeBron still reigning in Cleveland, the Celtics are delaying their peak by acquiring the younger Irving.

Adding to the intrigue: the Cavs and Celtics are still favored to meet in this year’s conference finals. At minimum, they’ll face off in a(n even more) highly anticipated opening-night matchup.

PBT Extra: What does Kyrie Irving trade mean for LeBron James?

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In the end, the entire Kyrie Irving blockbuster trade was about LeBron James. It started because Kyrie Irving wanted out of LeBron’s enormous shadow. Cleveland went with this trade because Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder help them win now, and whatever LeBron decides to do next summer the Brooklyn pick (and maybe Ante Zizic) helps them build for the future.

But what does this trade mean to LeBron James?

Honestly, it doesn’t change much. That’s what I get into in this latest PBT Extra. LeBron is leaving his options open, but maybe this deal could help Cleveland keep him if it makes them more competitive with the Warriors.

Rumor: Young Bulls ‘can’t stand’ Dwyane Wade

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After a loss last January, Dwyane Wade (in conjunction with since-traded Jimmy Butler) lashed out at his Bulls teammates for not caring enough. Those younger players didn’t receive the message gratefully, questioning why Wade didn’t practice more.

The simple answer: Wade is 35, and he and his team are better served if he saves himself for games. But Wade also should have known his schedule left him ill-suited to criticize harder-working teammates.

The whole saga exposed the inherent tension that occurs when an accomplished veteran with declining skills is thrust into a leadership position on a mediocre team.

Consider that backdrop as Wade and Chicago dance around a buyout.

Nick Friedell on ESPN discussing Wade getting bought out:

This is inevitable. It’s coming. It’s a matter of when, not if.

But right now, guys, it’s just kind of a staring contest. Everybody’s looking at each other saying, “OK, how much money are you willing to give up?”

And Gar Forman, the Bulls’ GM, at summer league, said, “Oh, we’re not having conversations.” I don’t think that’s the case. I think Dwyane’s agents and the Bulls are wanting to get this thing done.

But I’d really be surprised if it happened before the season. I still think it’s more likely that it’ll happen probably somewhere in December or January.

But this is a divorce that’s going to happen. It’s just going to take some time.

The young players on the Bulls really can’t stand Dwyane, and it’s the little secret in Chicago. They have had enough.

Wade’s January criticism was reportedly particularly directed at Nikola Mirotic and Michael Carter-Williams, neither of whom are on the roster. (Mirotic, a restricted free agent, will likely return.) Even if Wade’s comments cast a wider net, Jerian Grant, Paul Zipser, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio are the only young players still on the team from that time. None of those players deserve much influence in how the franchise operates.

Still, no matter what the young players want, it’s clear Wade no longer fits on a rebuilding Chicago. They might get their wish.

Wade is set to earn $23.8 million in the final season of an expiring contract. That salary could prove useful in a bigger trade.

If bought out, Wade would count as dead money against Chicago’s cap at his buyout amount. They Bulls should obviously be amenable if he sacrifices enough, but a small discount doesn’t justify locking into that money rather than having a trade chip available.

If Chicago is deep into the cellar as expected after the trade deadline, a buyout would be completely logical then. Maybe the Bulls even assess the trade market sooner and conclude Wade’s huge expiring contract won’t facilitate a trade.

It’s easy to see a buyout happening eventually. In the meantime, Wade and his younger teammates will just have to get along. I trust Wade’s professionalism to make this situation at least tenable, but Fred Hoiberg might have his hands full building cooperation with all the people involved.