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Higher power: LeBron James soaring into 7th straight NBA Finals

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CLEVELAND (AP) LeBron James will one day take his final bow, the brightest spotlight moving on to someone else.

There will come a time when his legs lose some explosiveness and those vicious dunks will be rendered ordinary. Someday, his jumper won’t fall as often, and that astonishing court vision, the key to his game, will become cloudy.

James will face the end of his career one day. Just not anytime soon.

On the eve of his seventh straight NBA Finals appearance, and 10 years since he debuted on basketball’s grand stage, James’ reign continues: undisputed king of the court.

During a postseason in which he has led the champion Cleveland Cavaliers to a 12-1 record and chased down Michael Jordan as the No. 1 scorer in playoff history, James has not only positioned himself for a fourth title, but intensified the debate over whether he’s the greatest player in NBA history.

He isn’t slowing down while building his case.

James has always dismissed the Jordan comparisons, saying that kind of talk is “only great for barbershops” and that original gravity-defying No. 23 has been his motivational muse, not a target. But after the Cavs won their third straight conference title, punishing an overmatched Boston team in five games – he supplanted Jordan during the clincher – James discussed his place alongside someone who was “like a god” to him growing up.

“I did pretty much everything that M.J. did when I was a kid,” James said. “I shot fadeaways before I should have. I wore black and red shoes with white socks. I wore short shorts so you could see my undershorts underneath. I didn’t go bald like Mike, but I’m getting there. … But other than that, I did everything Mike did. I even wore a wristband on my forearm. I didn’t do the hoop earring, either. That was Mike.

“But I did everything Mike did, man.”

And he’s not done, not by a long shot.

James is on a mission, and it’s far from accomplished.

By having one of his finest statistical postseasons – 32.5 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 57 percent shooting through 13 games – James is dismissing any argument about the league’s true MVP. Although he’ll finish behind Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard when the regular-season award is given out next month, James has reminded everyone over the past six weeks that he remains the measuring stick at 32.

He’s raising the bar even higher, during a decade in which his actions – on and off the floor – have shaped the league.

“LeBron James has dominated, seriously dominated, this era of basketball. His domination has been about the equivalent to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s in his time,” Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said. “He’s playing for his place in history, to be talked about as one of the best to ever play. The conversation will come down between he, Kareem and Michael Jordan. Then it’s just a matter of taste. Who do you want?”

Of all his accomplishments, making seven straight final rounds is near the top of the list. When the ball goes up in Game 1 on Thursday, James will be the seventh player to appear in seven consecutive Finals, and the first since Bill Russell led a handful of Celtics on their dynastic run in the 1960s.

James reluctantly reflects on what he’s done. As the Cavs prepared for the Warriors, he took a moment to consider his latest feat.

“It’s going to be great for my legacy,” he said. “Once I’m done playing the game and can look back on the game and say, `Oh, this guy went to three straight Finals, four straight Finals, five, six, whatever. It’s great to be talked about, see what I was able to accomplish as an individual. When you talk about longevity and being able to just play at a high level for a long period of time, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that and take two franchises to four Finals apiece – and no one has ever done that either.

“I’ve always been proud to be part of the biggest stage in our league, and it’s the Finals.”

And this is Act III of a three-year drama with Golden State.

After ending Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought last season, James has been unburdened, free of the criticism or consequences. Early in Game 1, he will become the first player with 6,000 points in the postseason, and there’s no reason to think he won’t pass 7,000 in due time.

Whatever he finishes with, Cavs veteran forward Richard Jefferson doesn’t think anyone will catch him.

“Like the Joe DiMaggio hit streak, Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100, there are certain records that will be unbreakable,” Jefferson said. “Whoever tries to get to that is going to have to play in 10 NBA Finals and average 30 points a game to get there. Let’s put that in perspective: that’s impossible. What he’s doing right now is obviously on a level that has never been seen before. To pass Michael Jordan when you’re still in the prime of your career, one of the greats of all-time? That record will be unbreakable.

“If he adds another 1,000 points, who’s going to be able to come in and go to 10 NBA Finals in this modern age? It’s impossible.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

After Kyrie Irving trade, here are five biggest threats to Warriors

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Let’s be honest: The blockbuster Kyrie Irving trade to the Boston Celtics likely means the NBA Finals goes five games instead of four.

The Golden State Warriors can be that good. They won 67 games last season with the NBA’s top offense and second-ranked defense, now they have been in the system for a year as a unit, know each other better, and made some good offseason additions. The Warriors will be better. And they still have Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. The Warriors are the clear favorites to repeat as NBA champions.

But life rarely follows the script. So who are the biggest threats to the Warriors? Here are the top five.

1) The Houston Rockets. Houston won 55 games last season with the NBA’s second-ranked offense and a style of play that can hang with the Warriors — then they added Chris Paul to the mix. Plus GM Daryl Morey added quality veteran wing defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, guys picked up in part to match up with the Warriors firepower. On paper, Houston is the NBA’s second best team and the one best poised to challenge the Warriors. It’s fair to wonder if Chris Paul and James Harden can share the backcourt and the ball — and if they can find a tempo that works for them — but coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t worried. It’s also fair to question if this team can be good enough defensively, even though they added good defenders. Still, the Rockets are a threat and a contender.

2) The Cleveland Cavaliers. The reason they are here is not the trade, it’s LeBron James. He remains the best player on the planet (although Durant is close). But the trade helps. In terms of pure offensive production, Isaiah Thomas matched or even bested Irving last season, IT is an All-NBA player for a reason. Also, the Cavaliers pick up the kind of “3&D” wing they have desperately needed in Jae Crowder. And if another player they really want/need comes available, they have assets in Ante Zizic and that Brooklyn first round pick to get him. Cleveland gets this spot because they are the clear favorite to win the East again, and if they are back in the Finals they have a shot despite an aging roster. The Cavs have beaten the Warriors in the Finals before.

3) The Boston Celtics. Admittedly, there is a bit of a drop off after those first two. I see Boston as more of a threat in two seasons (2018-19) and beyond, but after this trade they have quality players at key positions — Irving at the point, Gordon Hayward on the wing, and Al Horford in the paint. Boston also has one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens, who will put Irving in better situations (so long as Irving buys in and doesn’t just force isolation action, as he did at times in Cleveland). What Boston needs is guys like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to develop, and Marcus Smart to step up, to become real contenders. They also need to show they can defend, they traded away some of their best defenders this summer. That and a stronger defensive presence in the paint. All that said, Boston has a legitimate shot to beat Cleveland and come out of the East, and if they reach the Finals, then the Celtics at least have a puncher’s chance against the Warriors.

4) The San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs won 55 games last season, had the best defense in the NBA, and with Kawhi Leonard they have their own superstar. The Spurs are going to execute and make plays. They will miss the depth that Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons brought, but they added the scoring punch of Rudy Gay off the bench. What we know is the Spurs will not beat themselves, that they will be in the hunt, and we should know by now not to sleep on them.

5) The Oklahoma City Thunder. I think this is a dark horse contender. What we know is that the Thunder should be a top five defensive team — they were 10th in the NBA last season, they brought back their core guys (Andre Roberson and Steven Adams are key here), and they added an excellent wing defender to the mix in Paul George. The Thunder will get stops. If George and Russell Westbrook can figure out how to play well together on the offensive end — last season the Thunder were middle of the pack offensively with the Westbrook show — and get in the top 10, they become a team that could surprise some people.

Thon Maker, all 7’1″ of him, sat in economy class to get flight going

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If you are six-foot or taller, economy class on a modern airline feels cramped. But at least the airlines make up for it with a delicious full meal a bag of peanuts and a free movie.

Can you imagine a 7’1″ guy in economy?

The Bucks’ Thon Maker did it on a recent United flight and the passenger next to him Paul Kuzma posted about it on Facebook (hat tip to onmilwaukee.com).

Well, a missed #United flight found me on a rebooked one. After ending up in an upgraded Economy Plus (yay!) middle seat (not so yay!), volunteers were asked one by one, row by row, if one would relocate to the last row of the plane, middle seat….

My heart leapt again when I came to the last row and BOTH the middle AND aisle seats were open! I stowed my gear in the middle seat area but sat in the aisle seat, hoping.

Alas, it was too good to be true! Moments later, a 7’1″ tall young man who could not even stand completely straight in the aisle of the plane made his way our direction. My heart sunk, not for me, but for him! I saw him emerge from an Economy Plus window seat!

I told him I was so sorry, knowing this would be uncomfortable for him. He nonchalantly said it was worth it to get this delayed flight going. He had practice to attend in the morning and had a 2+ hour drive to get where he was headed after landing….

I had to ask how in the world he ended up in the last row. He also had missed a flight and was rebooked on this one. He was assigned his original FIRST CLASS seat. He had settled in there when a flight attendant told him the person who had paid for that seat on THIS flight had shown up, albeit very late. They had to move him to Economy Plus.

Once there for a while, his story mirrors mine. Requests were being made for someone to move to the last row and no one was volunteering. So he volunteered, wanting the flight to begin.

He couldn’t even fit his knees into the Economy seat! Every time the snack cart came by or someone had to use the restroom, he had to get up and move out of their way.

The entire flight, there was not a hint of resentment in his voice. He was even happy to allow me a picture with him and an autograph. Class act, Thon!

Somewhere a cranky old NBA player is saying “we always used to have to fly commercial…” and sorry old man, but that doesn’t make it easy or right. There’s a reason NBA teams moved away from that (and it wasn’t to save money).

Good on Maker for being willing to sacrifice when plenty of other normal-sized people couldn’t be bothered.

And if the name Kuzma is familiar, the author says his is the second cousin once removed of the Lakers’ rookie Kyle Kuzma.

PBT Podcast: Breaking down the Kyrie Irving trade

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Is LeBron James more likely to stay in Cleveland now?

Are the Boston Celtics contenders? Are they better set up for the future?

There are a lot more questions that come out of the surprise Kyrie Irving trade to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick. It’s a deal that is a big win for Cleveland, they got more than they should have expected in return. However, this is in no way a bad deal for the Celtics.

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break it all down in this latest PBT Podcast.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Report: Clippers reach deal with Michael Winger to be new GM

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We knew this was coming, now it’s about to be official.

Former Oklahoma City Thunder assistant GM Michael Winger is about to take over as the general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers. They offered him the job last week, now the sides have agreed to terms, and he will sign a deal soon, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Oklahoma City Thunder executive Michael Winger has reached an agreement in principle to become the general manager of the LA Clippers, league sources told ESPN on Wednesday.

Doc Rivers is no longer the guy with the hammer in Los Angeles, he will just be coaching the Clippers (and still getting $10 million a year paychecks, in case you think he’ll just walk away). The power structure now has Lawrence Frank at the top as the President of Basketball Operations, with Winger doing to work under him. The Clippers are expected to hire Trent Redden, one of David Griffin’s former right hand men in Cleveland, to work under Winger as an assistant GM. The Clippers also are expected to hire another assistant GM soon.

Frank, Winger and crew take over a team in transition. Chris Paul is gone, but the Clippers locked up Blake Griffin on a max deal this summer, they got a good veteran point guard in Patrick Beverley from Houston, and they signed Danilo Gallinari. They picked up some good young players in the CP3 trade such as Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker (who they now need to develop). The Clippers should be in the mix for one of the final three playoff slots in the West next season, but that doesn’t answer the bigger picture questions. Are the Clippers a team rebuilding for the future on the fly? Are they looking to stay good and relevant until they can get their new building in Inglewood constructed? Are they a year or two away from a total rebuild?

Steve Ballmer ultimately gets to make that call. It will be up to Winger to execute it.