LeBron may not worry about legacy talk, but a lot on line for him, Duncan in Finals

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SAN ANTONIO — When LeBron James retires someday he will go down as one of the greats to ever play the game. Exactly where in that pantheon, where on that scale he lands remains to be seen. He can call the talk of his ultimately legacy “kind of stupid” as he did Wednesday, but the fact remains that’s kind of where his career is at right now — he is in legacy building mode. Whether he wants to admit it or not.

Whenever this Spurs era ends — and no matter the outcome of these NBA Finals that start Thursday night in San Antonio — this franchise’s legacy is going to be set as one of the best teams in the post-Jordan era. It has sustained excellence spanning three decades now, from the late 1990s to today. We will call it the Tim Duncan era but it will be more than that, it will be David Robinson and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and most of all Gregg Popovich.

They may not want to talk about it, but both of the participants in the 2014 NBA Finals in some way have secured a powerful legacy.

And yet both have a lot on the line with their legacy in this series. Particularly LeBron.

Which is part of what makes these Finals so compelling. This is more than just another rematch, there is more than just pride and another ring on the line for these guys.

Especially LeBron — the stakes are highest for his legacy. Whether he cares about it or not.

Win and LeBron will have led a team to a three-peat, something Jordan did, something Shaq and Kobe Bryant did, but not something legends like Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain or Larry Bird ever did. Fair or not, Jordan is the bar LeBron is compared to now. Win this title and LeBron will have led an aging, declining team to a third straight title — past the immortal Duncan (twice), past Kevin Durant, past every peer he faced at his peak. That is how legends and legacies are made.

Lose, however, and LeBron is 2-3 in Finals and suddenly it’s a long road to Jordan’s 6-0 Finals record. LeBron will have been felled by Dirk Nowitzki and Duncan — two legendary players, but if you are an icon those are the titles you are supposed to win. Because that’s what we saw Jordan do. Again the standard may not be fair, but that’s where the bar has been set.

Lose and LeBron will someday go down as maybe the greatest physical specimen ever to play the game, but there will be questions about how much he got out of that talent. Doesn’t matter if he thinks that is fair, doesn’t matter how many MVPs he has or who the teammates were around him.

He may say that this kind of talk is stupid as he is 29 years old, but this is the same guy who has said in the past he wants to be on the NBA Mount Rushmore, that he is driven to become the greatest NBA player of all time. Remember he called his key jumper late in Game 7 of the Finals last year his “MJ moment.” He cares about his legacy, about how he will ultimately be remembered. And with that there is a lot on the line in these Finals.

Tim Duncan will go down as the greatest power forward ever when he steps away from the game sometime in the next few years. That is secured. We will debate him vs. Karl Malone on the pantheon, or whomever else you wish to put at the four spot, but Duncan has secured that place in the conversation.

However, win a fifth title and he will have done something more.

Win and these Spurs can lay claim with their sustained 15 years of excellence to the “greatest team in the post-Jordan era” title. It’s them and the Lakers, who have five titles to the Spurs four right now. If San Antonio gets a fifth — spread 15 years apart, where they won 50 games or more every one of those seasons (save for the lockout year there were just 50 games) — and they rightfully can try to snatch that mantle away from Kobe. You may say that the title still belongs to the Lakers (this is essentially a bar stool debate anyway) but the fact is the Spurs deserve to be respected and part of that conversation.

A win helps cement the Tim Duncan era as one of the great runs in the history of the NBA. It bookends it with 1999. It brings it into a new era and shows that ball movement, cutting off the ball, and just playing smart, playing fundamentally sound basketball will always be able to win. Even if you’re no longer the most athletic of teams.

That’s a huge legacy.

As it would be for LeBron if he wins.

The players, trying to focus straight ahead on the games may find the talk “stupid” but for both the 2014 NBA Finals is about their ultimate legacies.

J.R. Smith replacing Dwyane Wade as Cavaliers’ starting shooting guard

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The Cavaliers are 2-1, but their starting lineups have been outscored by 19 points in 32 minutes. Dwyane Wade has been so bad as the starting shooting guard, his struggles have overshadowed J.R. Smith‘s miserable play as the backup.

But at least Wade volunteered a solution to this predictable problem.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Dwyane Wade is headed for the Cavaliers’ bench at his own request and J.R. Smith is returning to the starting lineup.

Wade, 35, a 12-time All-Star who struggled in his first three games with Cleveland, asked coach Tyronn Lue to make the change, Lue said. But this wasn’t exactly Wade’s idea, either.

Lue told him when he signed with the Cavs Sept. 27 that the second unit may be the best fit for him.

“I just decided, earlier than later, just to get to the unit where I’d be more comfortable in and can probably better with this team in that lineup,” Wade said. “Why wait? Three games in, why wait? Wanted to get in there with those guys.”

Cleveland’s starting lineup needs more shooting and defense around LeBron James – especially with Derrick Rose starting over an injured Isaiah Thomas (though Rose is out a couple games with his own ankle injury). Smith provides that.

Bench-heavy units need more playmaking. Wade provides that.

This was a tricky situation given Wade’s status as a future Hall of Famer and friendship with LeBron. Whether Wade simply suggested the change or Lue is trying to give Wade public credit after coaxing it behind the scenes, the result is the same.

The Cavs can now use their most logical rotation, and they should be better for it.

Suns GM Ryan McDonough: Eric Bledsoe hair-salon claim about tweet was unbelievable

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Eric Bledsoe reportedly requested a trade from the Suns before the season then tweeted yesterday:

Clear message?

Apparently not.

After sending home Bledsoe today, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough explained his rationale:

The hair salon! What a wonderful excuse.

Is it true? I’m not going to call Bledsoe a liar. It might be.

It’s also probably true that Bledsoe isn’t long for Phoenix.

Report: Suns send Eric Bledsoe home, expect to trade him

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In a shocking twist, the Suns firing Earl Watson did not end the dysfunction in Phoenix.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Bledsoe:

That is a first-rate tweet by Bledsoe. It’s great that he’s having fun with the wild situation, because the rest of us sure are amused peering in.

This was always going to be a long season in Phoenix, but things got out of hand in a hurry. The 0-3 Suns have been outscored by 92 – the worst three-game start in NBA history by 16 points. Now, comes the fallout.

At 27, Bledsoe was getting to be a little too old for a rebuild centered on Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and T.J. Warren. The Suns could have dealt Bledsoe in the offseason. Now, they’re negotiating from a position of weakness.

Bledsoe is a good starting point guard when healthy. He’s earning a reasonable $14.5 million this season and due $15 million in the final year of his contract next season. There should be suitors, and Phoenix can gain long-term assets while stepping up its tank.

But this sure seems like a crisis-control move more than anything else.

Willy Hernangomez ‘mad’ about falling from Knicks rotation

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Knicks president Steve Mills started his second tenure talking about rebuilding and listed Willy Hernangomez as a core piece.

But Hernangomez, coming off an All-Rookie first-team season, barely played in New York’s season-opening loss to the Thunder– drawing scrutiny.

Then, he didn’t play at all in a loss to the Pistons – eliciting a strong reaction from Hernangomez himself.

Hernangomez, via Fred Kerber of the New York Post:

“The same. I’m still mad,” Hernangomez said. “I cannot help the team win if I’m sitting on the bench. Two games in a row. It’s tough. I have to wait my moment. I cannot say nothing more.”

The Knicks are moving in different directions. Management is talking about building for the future. Coach Jeff Hornacek, who was hired by previous president Phil Jackson, is trying to win now.

There’s a fine line between developing Hernangomez through playing time and making him earn his minutes. Enes Kanter and Kyle O'Quinn might be better right now.

But being marginally better this season won’t get the Knicks anywhere meaningful except lower in the lottery. On the other hand, even on rebuilding teams, winning is most important to a coach’s job security. Earl Watson implemented the Suns’ tanking scheme, and look where that got him.

Hornacek is backed into a corner, and now one of the team’s most important young players is publicly expressing his displeasure. It’s the latest troubling sign in a locker room already suspicious of Hornacek.