And so the LeBron returns to Cleveland in 2014 speculation begins…

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This has been a buzz around some NBA circles for little while now, but it’s starting to leak into the mainstream.

First it was my friend T.J. Carpenter (radio host at ESPN’s WHB Radio in Kanas city), who plays for me a clip of one journalist quoting an off-the-record remark from Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins saying he was 100 percent sure LeBron James will go back to Cleveland (although no timeline was given).

Then there is the column Friday in the Miami Herald by Greg Cote somehow spinning the likelihood of LeBron opting out of his deal in 2014, his new agent living in Cleveland and praise for Kyrie Irving during All-Star weekend into a feeling LeBron has one foot out the door.

Say it isn’t so that you will be heading back to Cleveland in the summer of 2014, or we can start the clock now on about 16 months of ever-increasing rumors and speculation gradually morphing into assumption.

This same rumor is all over Cleveland.

Ugh. Really? We need 14 months of LeBron speculation again? It’s starting up again as the Cavaliers face the Heat on Sunday.

Let’s try to separate some fact from fiction.

Fact: LeBron will opt out of his contract with the Heat in 2014. If there is one thing you can bet on in this saga it is that LeBron will use this chance to opt out of his contract after three years and get a new one, a real max deal (remember the last one was slightly less than max).

But that new contract most likely will be with the Miami Heat.

Fiction: That anyone, including LeBron, knows for sure what he will do in 14 months. I’m willing to rule out he’s going to go play for CSKA Moscow, but after that pretty much anything can happen and is on the table for the summer of 2014.

LeBron will be 29 when he opts out and at this point in his career it is about legacy and rings (which go hand-in-hand). Which is why he most likely stays in Miami — it’s a good bet he has one or two more rings by 2014 with the Heat. He’d be hesitant to walk away from that, and throw in the fact the Heat can offer more money and years and there are a lot of reasons to stay. If he’s still winning and it’s about the rings and the legacy, he’s not walking away from that in 2014.

But you say Dwyane Wade will be 32 — and an old 32 the way he throws his body around — and Kyrie Irving is young and good? No doubt about Kyrie, that’s not in question. But Wade is averaging 20.9 points a game this season and is showing a veteran’s ability to coast at points and turn it on when he needs to. He is still a top 12 player in the NBA (and that is being conservative), it’s not like he and Chris Bosh are chopped liver.

And if they need to get new players in Miami, don’t you think the lure of playing with LeBron, the lure of playing in South Beach (and Florida with no state income tax), plus the Jedi mind tricks of Pat Riley can get more impressive talent to come there?

The Cavaliers will have cap space in 2014, but it’s not just Dan Gilbert that has lined up 2014 cap space just in case. Kobe Bryant will be off the Lakers’ books and only Dwight Howard (after he likely re-signs with the team this summer) and Steve Nash will be on the payroll. The Lakers can offer the chance to play with the best center in the game on a big-name franchise. Dallas likely has cap space and a great reputation with players thanks to Mark Cuban. Heck a lot of teams will have max cap space and a solid core. If LeBron wants out of Miami, he will have options.

But I don’t think he wants out.

Legacy matters and his image already took a hit jumping once. He’s going to be very hesitant to do it again. He knows he can win in Miami, and he knows Pat Riley will put a team around him that can do it.

A lot of people who know LeBron better than I think he will go back to play for the Cavaliers. Someday. That he will close out his career there.

But don’t bet on that time being 2014.

Report: USC’s Elijah Stewart intended to declare for NBA draft, forgot

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Declaring for the NBA draft is like declaring bankruptcy: You can’t just bellow it and expect it to take effect. You actually have to fill out the paperwork.

That’s why USC’s Elijah Stewart wasn’t among the 192 early entrants to the 2017 NBA draft.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

Stewart:

Givony’s report will do little but embarrass Stewart. It’s unlikely Stewart would’ve been drafted, and he likely would have withdrawn to return to USC for his senior season. Perhaps, he would’ve gotten helpful feedback from the NBA before that point, but that’s minimal.

The real problem, though, isn’t Stewart’s inattentiveness, to whatever extent is exists. It’s that the NCAA won’t allow players to maintain eligibility while having an agent.

If Stewart had proper representation, there’d be no questioning whether he intended to declare for the draft. His agent would’ve handled it, one way or the other.

If the NCAA were truly about educating players, it’d allow them to have guidance from experienced professional agents. Agents don’t have to conflict with amateurism (not that amateurism is a worthy goal, anyway).

But teaching players is not the NCAA’s true goal. The NCAA prioritizes keeping its cartel in tact and money flowing to coaches and administrators.

Agents might steer players from that corrupt system entirely or at least help them leverage their immense power to gain better compensation than a wage-fixed scholarship.

This incident should spark discussion about the unseemly lengths the NCAA goes to to protect its money-makers from its revenue-generators. Instead, it’s much easier to make Stewart a punchline.

Kevin Durant gets a hoot out of meme with Draymond Green

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You’ve seen the Draymond GreenKevin Durant meme, right?

Here’s the video with my favorite caption:

In the latest episode of “Still KD,” Durant watches the meme, reads other captions and calls it “hilarious.”

Russell Westbrook: ‘Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be’

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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The Thunder want to sign Russell Westbrook to a contract extension that projects to be worth about $207 million over five years.

But does he want to sign it?

Westbrook, via Royce Young of ESPN:

“That’s something, like I said, I haven’t thought about anything, obviously,” Westbrook said. “Everybody knows that I like Oklahoma City and I love being here and I love everybody here. But I haven’t even thought about that. Obviously, Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be.”

Westbrook noted that his wife is expecting their first child in May, and that’s where his focus is right now. Asked whether there’s a timetable on his decision about a potential extension, Westbrook lightheartedly jabbed back.

“No. What did I just say? Like you don’t care about my baby?” he said. “You must not. You didn’t hear that part, huh?”

Though it was painted as Westbrook showing his loyalty to the Thunder in stark contrast to the departed Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s renegotiation-and-extension last summer was also his way of receiving the highest-possible salary.

This is a different case.*

*So, it seems. It’s unclear whether the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will allow Oklahoma City to renegotiate Westbrook’s 2017-18 salary up to the designated-veteran-player rate, but I’m presuming not.

Westbrook will have 10 years of experience when an extension would kick in. A typical advantage of a designated-veteran-player contract is allowing a player with eight or nine years experience, who’s typically limited to a starting salary of 30% of the salary cap, to receive a starting salary of 35% of the salary cap. But Westbrook will be eligible for 35% of the salary by then simply due to his years of service.

In other words, an extension signed this summer would pay Westbrook the exact same amount he could receive as a free agent in 2018.

So, would Westbrook sign that extension? It’d guarantee him a huge salary and protect him in the event of injury or decline. But Westbrook is so good, he’s extremely likely to get the max in 2018-19 no matter what. With only minimal risk, maybe he’d rather maintain flexibility.

Westbrook appeared to embrace leading the team, and he truly seems happy in Oklahoma City in a way I didn’t expect when he signed last summer. His image is so tied to loyalty to the Thunder, it’d be tough to spin an exit.

But Oklahoma City is relatively locked into a roster that will have a hard time winning multiple playoff series. Westbrook wants to win.

I don’t know whether he’ll accept an extension this summer rather than delaying a year, but if he won’t ink a deal this year, that should be a concerning indicator to the Thunder about their chances of re-signing him in 2018.

Neil Olshey pushes back against columnist critiquing Trail Blazers’ culture

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John Canzano wrote a column for The Oregonian calling the Trail Blazers’ culture “busted.”

Jason Quick of CSN Northwest tweeted about the column:

And then Quick asked Neil Olshey about it in the general manager’s postseason press conference:

Olshey

I want to let you know I was completely oblivious to that until someone showed me your tweet, which I said, “I don’t understand what this means.” And I had to go back and read that.

I was glad that it was written by someone who came to two games all year, and clearly the motivation was to abuse his privileges as a media person with his pass so that he could get tickets for his relatives and pictures taken with the opposing point guard in the opposing point guard’s jersey. Because clearly, that’s an unbiased opinion, right? That’s an impartial observer talking about our roster when he has his nephew in a Steph Curry jersey taking pictures with Steph Curry. Sure.

You know, look. I’m very comfortable with where our culture is. I mean, look, you guys are around it. Hey, you’re in that locker room more than I am, right? I mean, quite honestly, you guys know. The day I stopped coaching, I haven’t walked into an NBA locker room. Not once. It’s not my place. When I talk to the guys, it’s out of the locker room. That’s their sanctuary. So, you guys know how close a group that is, how they feel about the coaching staff, the support that they get from the organization. They know we have their best interest at heart.

Last summer, when we had guys that their markets didn’t appear the way that I think maybe they anticipated they would. They were still taken care of. They wanted to keep here. When you look at guys like – look at Chris Kaman. Look at Steve, guys, how they were treated when they were here relative to maybe some other experiences they had had in the league. Everybody throws the word around, and like I said, I don’t hear a lot of complaints. And believe me, we have guys that – any of you that know Chris Kaman, if he had a complaint, he would voice it.

And again, like with Dame, hey, what does it tell you about an organization and an owner that, when you are in a starting lineup from the day you walked in and 80 percent of it is not gonna return, and on day one you sign on long-term? And then your backcourt mate, who is another star in this league never once said, “I wanna go somewhere to run my own team” and signed on.

And I think that’s where you have to look at it, is — and I’ve talked about this in free agency — look, I’ve got to do a better job selling our program, selling the organization, selling the city when we have the free agency flexibility. But I think what gets lost in that is the guys that wanted to stay and the guys that wanted to come back. I think you have to look at that also, that we don’t have guys – we lost one player.

Canzano addressed the gripe about his family member wearing a Stephen Curry jersey:

I bought a pair of tickets to Game 3 for my nephew and our church pastor. I had to work the game so I needed a chaperone to sit with the kid and the church youth pastor was all for it. I dropped them off in front of Moda Center and picked them back up after the game. The nephew, 11, likes Steph Curry and wore his Curry jersey to the game and the pastor snapped a photo of the kid with Curry warming up in the background. It was posted to social media. My nephew is in the foster-care system. My wife and I are his guardians. It felt like the right thing to do. Not sure why this is even a topic. Not sure fans care, either. But I suppose Olshey was trying to say that because my nephew wore a Curry jersey I couldn’t be impartial? I don’t know, and a waste of time to think about it.

That’s a more-than-fair defense. I wouldn’t get hung up on Canzano’s nephew’s Stephen Curry jersey.

But Canzano’s initial column left plenty to be desired. Most of it harps on how nice Kevin Durant and Curry were to Portland arena staff during the Warriors-Trail Blazers first-round series, as if that – not Curry’s and Durant’s generational talent and star production from Draymond Green and Klay Thompson – has made Golden State title favorite. Damian Lillard shaking a few more hands and C.J. McCollum issuing a few more than yous would not have gotten Portland out of the first round. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were notorious jerks, and their teams fared pretty well. Canzano’s juxtaposition also unfairly paints the Trail Blazers players as surly, which has not been the case in my experience.

The unfortunate part: Canzano actually makes a couple interesting critiques that are drowned out by the fawning over Durant and Curry shaking hands. Canzano contends that, because Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen has cycled through so many general managers, Olshey knows his time in Portland could be running out and therefore contributes to a culture of fear and paranoia that permeates in numerous ways. I wish Canzano would’ve explored that in greater depth.

Instead, Olshey never addressed those concerns. He talked about how most Trail Blazers, LaMarcus Aldridge the lone notable exception, have been happy in Portland and wanted to stay there – which is nice, but not really Canzano’s point. A team can both attract players and have a flawed culture.