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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

Mark Cuban fined $600,000 for telling team “losing is our best option”

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Of all the hot water Mark Cuban is in right now with the Mavericks and the NBA league office, this is probably the smallest tub. And the least expensive fine.

Cuban recently went on Julius Erving’s podcast, House Call with Dr. J, and said:

“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night. And here we are, we weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, “Look, losing is our best option.” Adam would hate hearing that, but at least I sat down, and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again.”

You were not supposed to say that — the NBA Wednesday fined Cuban $600,000 for “for public statements detrimental to the NBA.”

Cuban’s not wrong, it’s just a matter of perception. The NBA has worked very hard to lessen the image that teams are tanking for draft position (why do you think there was pressure on the Sixers to replace Sam Hinkie?), they don’t need an owner saying it’s the smart thing to do. Even though it is. Teams tank — it is still the only way for a small or medium market team to get a superstar, get high in the draft and hopefully pick one (it’s not that simple, ask the Magic) — but the league wants at least the facade that all of its teams are competitive. All the way through the end of the season.

As you read this, the bottom eight teams in the NBA are within three games of each other for the worst record — and a higher lottery slot. Does anyone think any of them are not going to roll out young, less-talented rosters in the name of development when the real goal is to lose as many games as they can the rest of the way? Most scouts think there is some real talent at the top of this draft, and teams are going to try to get up there and get it.

Just nobody can talk about it.

Mark Cuban accepts blame for bringing back Mavs.com writer after domestic abuse

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Credit Mark Cuban on this: He’s owning his mistakes.

He should have been more aware at the time, but he wasn’t and that helped lead to an “Animal House” style sexual predatory environment on the business side of the Dallas Mavericks, according to a Sports Illustrated report.

One of the more damning allegations involves former Mavs.com writer Earl K. Sneed. He was involved in a domestic dispute where he beat his then-girlfriend his first season with the Mavericks in 2011, then a few months later was arrested — at the Mavericks facility — for assault, reportedly fracturing his girlfriend’s face. He pled guilty to that and went through court-mandated anger management classes, but the Mavericks re-hired him (with a clause in his contract he could not have one-on-one interactions with women). Then reportedly had another dispute in 2014 hitting a female co-worker which led to more counseling (this ordered by the team), yet he was kept on. Sneed legally was not able to follow the team when it went into Canada to play the Raptors because of the charges against him.

Cuban admitted to Tim MacMahon of ESPN keeping Sneed employed was a mistake.

“I want to be clear, I’m not putting the blame on anybody else,” Cuban told ESPN. “It came down to my final decision that I made.”

In hindsight, Cuban said, “I would have fired him and still made him go to counseling” after learning details of the first domestic violence incident, expressing regret for not following up with police to discover those details…

“It was bad, but we made a mistake about the whole thing and didn’t pursue what happened with the police after the fact,” Cuban told ESPN. “So we got it mostly from Earl’s perspective, and because we didn’t dig in with the details — and obviously it was a horrible mistake in hindsight — we kind of, I don’t want to say took his word for it, but we didn’t see all the gruesome details until just recently. I didn’t read the police report on that until just [Tuesday], and that was a huge mistake obviously.”

It is not just Cuban who is to blame here. The head of Mavericks HR (who has been fired in the wake of this report) should have cut this off from the start. Same goes for the team’s CEO. The fact that none of those three men — Cuban included — did not step in here shows how a culture that allows predatory treatment of women is allowed to exist.

The Mavericks have hired a law firm to investigate both the incidents and the business culture around the organization. Changes are coming. And eventually, as more of this comes out, so will the wrath of the league — Cuban and the Mavericks are going to play a price for this.

Report: Suns, Mavericks, Pacers may go after Aaron Gordon this summer

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Aaron Gordon is having the best season of his career in Orlando. He’s not just a dunk contest phenom anymore, he has had the Orlando offense flowing through him (an offense that is top 10 in the league the last 15 games), he is averaging 18.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, is shooting 34.6 percent from three (where he is taking 36 percent of his shot attempts), he’s still a strong finisher at the rim shooting 70 percent there this season, and while he’s a four he can guard threes fairly well on the perimeter or handle a small-ball five in the post. He has value.

How much value is what the market will determine this summer — Gordon is a restricted free agent.

He is eligible for a four-year, $100 million contract. Orlando would like to keep him but at less than that amount, however other teams — the Suns, Mavericks, and maybe Pacers — could make a run at him, reports Sean Deveney of The Sporting News.

League sources told Sporting News this week that the Suns are expected to be suitors for Gordon, who starred at Arizona for one memorable season. Phoenix has ample cap room and a roster in need of more proven players. Another team with interest in Gordon, according to sources, would be the rebuilding Mavericks, who have been eager to find a budding star to fill in alongside Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr., softening the blow of Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement, which could come in just months.

The Pacers intend to investigate restricted free agents, too, hoping to add young talent to an improving roster. Still, if any team makes a formal offer, the Magic can match it.

That the Suns are going after him says all you need to know about where they think the ceilings are for Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. The Suns will have a top draft pick again, and they are deep at the four right now, but Gordon is better than anyone not named Devin Booker on that roster and Phoenix needs talent.

There’s not a ton of available talent at the top of this free agent class. LeBron James is out there, but only a few teams have a shot at him — if he leaves Cleveland at all. If Paul George leaves Oklahoma City it’s only for Los Angeles. Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, and most likely DeMarcus Cousins are not going anywhere. The big name a lot of teams could chase is DeAndre Jordan, he is open, but also is an old-school center that does not work for every team.

Expect some teams to try to poach restricted free agents such as Gordon this summer (Clint Capela, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker are all big man restricted free agents). Gordon will have options, the only question is the price, and will Orlando match? The buzz around the league is they will, but things can be different when it’s time to sign the check.

Highest-paid rookie in NBA history, Bogdan Bogdanovic proving himself with Kings

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LOS ANGELES – Kings rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic insists he wanted to get to the NBA much more quickly than he did.

He declared for the 2013 NBA draft.

“That’s how I put myself on radar here,” said Bogdanovic, who was playing in his native Serbia.

He garnered some attention, but not enough, so he withdrew. He declared again in 2014, and the Suns picked him No. 27.

“Honestly, I wanted to come right over that year,” Bogdanovic said.

But Phoenix told him he’d likely spend significant time with its minor-league affiliate, so he returned to Europe.

“The plan was one only,” Bogdanovic said of how many more seasons he’d spend overseas.

He signed with Turkish power Fenerbahçe and helped the club reach its first-ever EuroLeague Final Four. Bogdanovic again considered coming stateside, but a prohibitive buyout and desire to win a EuroLeague title pushed him back to Fenerbahçe another year. That season, he helped the team reached the EuroLeague championship game. Fenerbahçe fell behind big early, made a thrilling comeback to force overtime, but still fell to CSKA Moscow.

“I learned to be ready to pay every single game – like it’s the last one in life,” Bogdanovic said in what sounded like a nod to that devastating result or the time a previous coach choked him during a game.

The Suns dealt Bogdanovic’s rights to Sacramento on draft night 2016 (trading up for the No. 8 pick to get Marquese Chriss), delaying Bogdanovic’s NBA debut yet another year.

Finally, just more than three years after getting drafted, Bogdanovic signed with the Kings.

The wait meant Bogdanovic was no longer restricted by the NBA’s rookie scale for first-round picks. That, his major improvement in Europe and Sacramento’s ample salary-cap space meant he got a three-year, $27 million contract. His rookie salary is $9,470,614 – the highest in NBA history – and Bogdanovic visibly beams about the deal, the upside of deferring his NBA dream so long.

He also keeps perspective.

“Money doesn’t play,” Bogdanovic said. “You’ve still got to go there and show out what you got paid for.”

So far, Bogdanovic is doing that.

He’s a strong contender for an All-Rookie team in this loaded class, and he won MVP of the Rising Stars game at All-Star Weekend. Bogdanovic is outperforming No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and arguably No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball, which makes some sense, considering Bogdanovic is also out-earning them – and every other rookie in NBA history.

Here are the highest-paid rookies with where they were drafted and the team for which they debuted:

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Bogdanovic – who’s averaging 11.5 points, 3.2 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game – is a good shooter with a decent all-around game. He’s one of just 10 qualifying players* shooting 50% on 2-pointers and 40% on 3-pointers. Most of them are All-Stars.

*The other nine: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns, Al Horford, Kevin Love, Otto Porter, E'Twaun Moore and Darren Collison

A peer group comprised mostly of All-Stars is probably overly ambitious, but perhaps Bogdanovic shouldn’t be compared to other rookies, either. He’s already 25 and a veteran of professional basketball.

In fact, the Kings don’t treat him like a rookie at all.

“We’ve got four rookies on the team,” said De'Aaron Fox, the No. 5 pick in the most recent draft. Himself, No. 15 pick Justin Jackson, No. 20 pick Harry Giles and No. 34 pick Frank Mason. Older than most of his teammates, Bogdanovic doesn’t have to do typical rookie duties like picking up food or carrying bags.

“They respect me,” Bogdanovic said.

So does Buddy Hield, the crown jewel of the DeMarcus Cousins trade and Sacramento’s incumbent starting shooting guard.

The 6-foot-6 Bogdanovic and 6-foot-4 Hield can share the wing in some matchups, but some small forwards are too big for either. So, the two have alternated stints in the starting lineup.

“It’s competition, but you don’t want it to be easy for you,” said Hield, who also played in the Rising Stars game. “You want to work for your own and work for your spot. And me and Bogi have a great relationship. Whether he starts or I start, it doesn’t matter.”

Neither Hield nor Bogdanovic is a can’t-miss prospect. Bogdanovic is having a nice season, but his age creates major questions about his upside. The Kings gain value by hedging bets.

Bogdanovic sounds determined to prove himself, not fall back on his current contract, which already guarantees life-changing money.

“If you don’t use that chance,” Bogdanovic said, “it might be your last one.”