Only two other NBA players have ever won the award — Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Last year the award went to Michael Phelps off his performance at the London Olympics, other past winners include Aaron Rodgers, NASCAR’s Jimmy Johnson, Tom Brady, Tiger Woods and going back Joe Montana, Carl Lewis, Wayne Gretzky, Muhammad Ali and Jesse Owens.
“I’m chasing something and it’s bigger than me as a basketball player,” James told the AP. “I believe my calling is much higher than being a basketball player. I can inspire people. Youth is huge to me. If I can get kids to look at me as a role model, as a leader, a superhero … those things mean so much, and that’s what I think I was built for. I was put here for this lovely game of basketball, but I don’t think this is the biggest role that I’m going to have…
“I don’t think I’ve changed much this year,” James said. “I’ve just improved and continued to improve on being more than just as a basketball player. I’ve matured as a leader, as a father, as a husband, as a friend.”
LeBron is off to another MVP-like season — he is averaging 25.2 points per game but is doing it at amazing efficiency, his true shooting percentage so far this season is 67.4 percent, plus averaging 6.9 points and 6.2 assists a game. His minutes are down a little, he’s taking a couple fewer shots a game but LeBron is still impacting any game he is in on both ends of the floor more than any player on the planet right now.
Miami has the chance this year to make it to their fourth straight NBA Finals (the last team to do that was Bird’s Celtics in the mid 1980s) and win three straight NBA titles. If that happens (it will not be easy with the Indiana Pacers in their path) it will be because of James.
“They’re trying psychoanalyze me when they don’t know me,” Durant said. “So, it’s like you have more information about the game of basketball than you do me as a person. So, ‘you’re soft,’ ‘cupcake,’ all that stuff comes from trying figure me out as a person, not worrying about my basketball skills. But if you watch me on the basketball court, then you come up with your own observation.”
That on-court observation no longer jibes with the unflattering perception of his mindset.
Durant’s height has long been a fascination. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but he’s almost certainly taller. Durant once said he’s 7-foot when he talks to women. “He’s 7 feet,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says plainly.
Durant just didn’t play like it.
He entered the NBA as a finesse player. He couldn’t bench press 185 pounds a single time his pre-draft combine, and he spent his rookie year in Seattle playing shooting guard – as far from the paint as a player so tall could get.
Never mind that Durant improved greatly with the Thunder as a defender and rebounder, skills that require physicality. And never mind that he was a superstar on the perimeter, giving little reason to alter his style.
When he left Oklahoma City – where he settled in at small forward – for Golden State, Durant’s on- and off-court reputations merged to form a single image. Afraid of contact, afraid of competition.
Durant is making it much harder for his critics to paint him that way. He’s playing more like a traditional big than ever.
His 2.1 blocks per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward since Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Smith more than a decade ago (minimum: two games). His 5.3 post touches per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward in the NBA.com database (which dates back to 2013-14).
“Getting in the mix with the bigs a little bit, I think that’s one role that I always wanted to play and always appreciated about my teammates in the past – from Kendrick Perkins to Thabo Sefolosha to Draymond to David West to Serge Ibaka,” Durant said. “I appreciated those guys for doing the dirty work and allowing me to be the player that I am on the offensive end.”
The Warriors are spoiled to have Durant assume this responsibility.
Defensively, Durant has become more comfortable defending power forwards and centers. Sometimes, he blocks their shots:
Other times, guarding a big just positions Durant to protect the basket:
“He’s just being active,” Kerr said. “When he’s active on the weak side of the play, he’s a devastating defender.”
Durant still just bottles up an opponent in a traditional wing matchup for him and blocks a jumper. He also blocks shots in transition.
But he leads non-centers, non-power forwards with 4.8 shots defended at the rim per game (minimum: two games). His block numbers aren’t telling a misleading story. Durant is doing work in the paint.
It helps that the league has shifted toward small-ball. When the slender Durant matches up against fours and fives, his opponents aren’t as big as they would have been a few years ago.
The Warriors played Durant at center to great effect in last year’s Finals, and it’d be a shock if they didn’t turn to him there again in high-leverage situations.
Make no mistake, though: Durant remains a generational perimeter player. He’s a dead-eye shooter with tight handles and jaw-dropping fluidity. Whatever time Durant spends moonlighting as an interior player, he can always switch into the style that made him a future Hall of Famer in the first place.
His ability to play both ways just makes him even more dangerous.
Still, Durant has made his name as a small forward. He says he has always played the role coaches gave him, but it’s tough to look past the fears of Kevin Garnett, another skilled tall player who worried when he was younger he’d get pigeonholed inside if he were listed as a 7-footer. As we talked, Durant picked up on my line of questioning and interjected.
“You trying to turn me into a four guy?” Durant said.
“Maybe even a five,” I said.
“Maybe,” Durant. “I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the way the league is going.”
Listen to what LeBron James told Lonzo Ball on court (video)
I don’t see the reaction, because I don’t get involved in it. I don’t do it to get a reaction.
I do it because he’s said over and over since he was growing up and who he modeled his game after. And who was his favorite player? And it was me, and I was humbled by that. So me wishing him a happy birthday was kind of a salute back to him.
I see all the stupid noise that happens, and I can’t buy a place in L.A. I can’t live in L.A. It’s funny noise. But I don’t get involved in it, because when I post things, I don’t look at comments. I’m so far removed of the white noise and the noise doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me.
Were you mentoring Ball or giving him advice? LeBron:
None of y’all business.
Unfortunately for LeBron, a microphone picked up most of the conversation (hat tip: reddit user IT-3):
LeBron, best I can tell:
Find your zone and just stay f—ing locked in. The media is going to ask you what I told you right now. Tell them nothing. Just be aggressive every single day.
It’s white noise to you. That’s all it is. Alright? Let’s go.
LeBron was never going to say something controversial in front of all those cameras. He knows better, especially after attention drawn by his on-court conversation with Dwyane Wade a few years ago.
Unsurprisingly, LeBron’s words directly to Ball mirror what he told the media after the game. There’s no secret plot here – just someone who has been in the spotlight for years trying to help someone going through it now.
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