How LeBron James found his focus these playoffs

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LeBron James plays his best when he is comfortable.

He’s not wired like a Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett, who turn insults real and perceived into fuel that motivates them and gets them into their zone. LeBron needs to tune out the outside world to get in his zone, and in playoff runs past he has struggled to do that.

This time he has found his place — he has his family with him in Miami, he is reading books in the locker room before every game — and it has him closer than he has ever been to an NBA championship. LeBron and the Heat are up 3-1 over the Thunder and can close it out at home in Game 5 Thursday night.

Finding his comfort zone started with having his fiancé and two sons join him in Miami. They were still in Akron last year but moved down to Miami during the lockout. But that family is giving him space.

“Since the postseason everyone has been shut down,” LeBron said about the distractions that family can bring. “They understand what I’ve been going through over the years. My family has just been allowing me to just play the game and not worry about everything else that’s going on. They wouldn’t dare get in my way at this point.”

To release that pressure on game night, James has turned to reading in the locker room before games. The LeBron James book club has read Jerry West’s autobiography “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life” (which I recommend highly), “Decoded” by Jay-Z and a series of other books including the Hunger Games trilogy.

“It just slows my mind down,” LeBron said. “It just gives me another outlet. Throughout the playoffs all you think about is basketball. All you want to do is play basketball. But at the same time it can become a lot. It can come to a point where it’s overloading the mind and you think about it too much…

“The reading gave me an opportunity to — just for those couple hours of the day, or those 20, 25 minutes before the game — just gives me an opportunity to read and think about something else, and get a sense of what else is going on besides the game of basketball. It’s made me comfortable.”

And that comfort has led to a finals MVP kind of playoff run. It has led James to be within one more win of his ultimate goal. It has brought him closer to living up to his potential than at any time in his past.

We’ll see if it can help him take that last, big step to NBA champion.

Dwight Howard changes story, blames Magic front office for bringing up firing Stan Van Gundy

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While sipping from a can of Pepsi, Stan Van Gundy calmly explained to the assembled media that Magic management told him Dwight Howard wanted the coach fired. Then, an unsuspecting Howard walked up and put his arm around Van Gundy. Van Gundy slinked away, leaving Howard to answer questions.

That 2012 press conference was an all-time great NBA moment.

Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated:

To hear Howard tell it, he has been the victim of more subtle misunderstandings than Larry David. The excruciatingly awkward press conference, when Stan Van Gundy confirmed that Howard was lobbying the Magic front office to fire him, only for an unsuspecting Howard to join Van Gundy and deny what the coach claimed? “That previous summer, the front office asked me about Stan, and I told them I thought he was losing his voice with the team. But they were the ones who said they should start looking for other coaches.”

Howard already admitted in 2014 he told the Magic he thought Van Gundy should have been fired after the 2011 playoffs. Howard even griped that Orlando didn’t listen to him!

I get that Howard is (again) trying to rehabilitate his image, but he has to do a better job of keeping his story straight.

Bulls hire Doug Collins as senior advisor

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Doug Collins burns out. Burns out his players, burns out himself. That was his reputation through 11 seasons coaching the Bulls, Pistons, Wizards and 76ers.

When Collins left Philadelphia in 2013, he declared he was done coaching. There was just too much pressure, he said.

Perhaps, Collins has found a role that better suits him.

Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago:

In a surprise announcement, the Chicago Bulls have brought former coach Doug Collins back into the fold, naming him a senior advisor to Executive Vice President John Paxson.

Even among NBA personnel, Collins was a basketball expert in his time. Whether he has kept up in a rapidly evolving league is an open question.

It won’t hurt having his voice in the room. It might hurt if the Bulls lean too heavily on it.

Hopefully, everyone entered this arrangement for the right reasons. Paxson played for Collins in Chicago. Collins’ son – Chris Collins – coaches nearby Northwestern. An overreliance on comfort won’t yield positive results. The Bulls need forward-thinkers, not just familiar faces. Successful executives put in a lot of work and aren’t just hanging around to be close with family.

This hire probably won’t move the needle much, but there’s certainly a chance it could – in either direction.

Dwight Howard considered retiring in 2015

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Dwight Howard missed half the 2014-15 season due to injury, and he was investigated (but not charged) for child abuse that year.

But he remained defiantly confident.

He said he planned to play another 10 years. When his Rockets lost in the playoffs, he declared he was “still a champion.”

The picture behind the scenes wasn’t quite so rosy, though.

Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated:

At a low point with the Rockets, after the 2014–15 season, he considered retiring. The jolly giant who supposedly had too much fun on the floor was miserable. “The joy,” Howard says, “was sucked out of it.” But what would retirement accomplish? He had to change his life regardless of his occupation. So he did what his teenage self would have done. He saw a pastor.

Calvin Simmons has ministered to hundreds of professional athletes in the past decade, including Adrian Peterson, so he is familiar with dramatic falls from grace. “Dwight had gone from the darling of the NBA to the black sheep,” Simmons says. “He realized he had done some things wrong and needed to change, but at the beginning he just wanted to share.”

“I saw him cleanse everything,” Simmons says, “and cut away the clutter around him, from a business manager to a security guard to all these financial people.” The sweep included his parents, whom he didn’t call for nearly two years. “That was hard,” Howard sighs. “It’s really hard to tell your parents, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I have to back away from you.’ They didn’t understand. They were very upset. But I wanted a genuine relationship with them that didn’t have anything to do with money or judgment.”

Howard’s fortunes didn’t exactly improve.

He feuded with James Harden, chafed at his role in Houston and endured public questions about why nobody likes him. Howard signed with his hometown Hawks, had a somewhat resurgent season, but again ended the year unhappy. Atlanta took major long-term salary just to dump him on the Hornets.

Howard is now a good situation in Charlotte, where the coach reveres him. This looks like Howard’s best chance of getting back on track.

But what if he doesn’t? That’s what I wonder when reading about 2015. If he nearly retired then, what happens if he doesn’t thrive with the Hornets and is faced with minimum-contract offers and small roles when he becomes a free agent at age 33 in 2019. Will he retire?

That’s obviously a ways off. For now, Howard will have every opportunity to right himself in Charlotte.

Report: From Lakers (+$115 million) to Pistons (-$45 million), NBA teams’ incomes vary widely

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In 2011, the NBA said 23 teams lost money. A lockout followed, and the players relinquished a significant share of Basketball Related Income to the owners.

In 2014, there was still noise about nine teams losing money. The owners and players struck a deal on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement without another work stoppage just as new national TV contracts were kicking in, signs of prosperity.

Yet, the same issues persist.

Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Despite a flood of new national television cash, 14 of the NBA’s 30 teams lost money last season before collecting revenue-sharing payouts, and nine finished in the red even after accounting for those payments, according to confidential NBA financial records obtained by ESPN.com.

I highly recommend reading Windhorst’s and Lowe’s piece in full. It provides a fascinating breakdown of these numbers from a variety of perspectives.

It can be tough to evaluate these from afar.

The Pistons’ (Tom Gores) and Nets’ owners (Mikhail Prokhorov) own the arenas where their teams played last season. Those buildings can draw a lot of revenue from concerts and other events that isn’t included in the basketball-operations figures seen here.

The Rockets just sold for a record $2.2 billion, and it’s not just because they’re one of the few profitable teams. Sale prices have generally exceeded Forbes valuations lately.

Market size clearly matters, especially as it influences local TV deals. That’s the impetus to the Lakers’ massive profits during a season in which they went 26-56.

But the Lakers need competition, and that’s why they share revenue. There’s value in propping up small-market teams to have a full league of 30 teams. How much value? That’s the ongoing debate.

Maybe the NBA has gone too far toward small markets. Every franchise relocation in the last three decades has put a team in a small market – Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Memphis. That might be finally catching up to the league.

That’s why another team moving or even expansion is being discussed again. Expansion could bring quick cash to the several teams losing it. But it’d also dilute revenue long-term.

These are thorny problems, ones teams have millions of reasons to keep debating.