LeBron James Cavaliers

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


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: 76ers supporting, not blaming, Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor
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76ers rookie Jahlil Okafor fought a man in a Boston street.

The team has released a short, vague statement. CSN Philly:

“We are aware of the report and we are currently working to gather additional information. Until that time, we will have no further comment.”

But what do the 76ers really think?

Chris Broussard of ESPN:

I spoke with somebody close to him. They’ve talked to the 76ers. They’ve talked with the NBA.

The Sixers are very supportive of Okafor. They understand the situation, but they have to do their due diligence and look into it.

The Sixers are supporting him. They’re not blaming him. If they have to discipline, it still won’t sully him in their eyes.

Again, I’m told that they’re very supportive of him.

If the 76ers really support Okafor, they’ll do so publicly. Leaking their support anonymously doesn’t really move the needle.

I also find this report a little dubious, because Broussard only said he talked to someone close to Okafor. If the 76ers’ viewpoint came filtered through an Okafor rep, there could be a lot of spin – though it’s possible Broussard also spoke with someone from the team.

What choice do the 76ers have but to support Okafor, anyway? He’s a promising young player on a team that desperately needs hope. It seems he made a major mistake, but it’s not a career-ender. And as long as the 76ers are keeping him, they might as well stand by him.

However – based on what we’ve seen, which is obviously not everything – this incident should “sully him in their eyes.” He appeared to be the aggressor, and the team should be concerned by that. Perhaps, further investigation has provided extenuating circumstances, but absent new evidence, the 76ers should view him less favorably – and be proactive about helping him correct any underlying issues.

That’s the support Okafor needs from them.

Celtics president Danny Ainge on Brad Stevens: ‘He’s a keeper’

Brad Stevens

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has never finished a season with a winning record. He’s over .500 this year only because Boston came back to beat the lowly 76ers. He has never won a playoff game.

But Stevens – who signed a six-year, $22 million contract in 2013 – has plenty of job security.

Celtics president Danny Ainge, in a Q&A with Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

You’ve joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?

Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.

You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we’re only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.

Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be — if he stays in this game long enough — he’s going to be one of the great coaches.

I tend to agree with Ainge’s assessment. Stevens has looked like an excellent coach so far – implementing a sound defense, creating space on offense and communicating clearly with his players.

But Stevens has benefited tremendously from low expectations, arriving in Boston after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen retired. Expectations sunk even lower when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo last season.

That’s when Stevens appeared to do his best work, guiding a starless team to a 24-12 finish.

Expectations will keep rising, though. Some expected the Celtics to break out this year, but they’re just 8-7. Stevens faces the difficult task of managing a rotation full of pretty good – but no great – players. This might be his hardest NBA assignment yet.

Stevens has done plenty to earn praise from his boss. But to actually get a contract extension, he’ll have to keep meeting higher and higher expectations.

I believe Stevens is up to the challenge, but I’m not completely certain of it. He wouldn’t be the first coach to impress early in his tenure and then fizzle. Just look at how many Coach of the Year winners lost their jobs a short time later.

Again, I think Stevens will meet any reasonable expectations he faces. He just must actually do it to get a longer deal.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant

Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.