Warriors loom over LeBron James’ legacy quest

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Losing in the NBA Finals has driven LeBron James mad in previous years.

In 2011, he infamously reminded his haters they’d face the same personal problems while he continued to enjoy the good life. In 2015, he openly debated whether he’d rather lose in the Finals or miss the playoffs entirely.

But this year, he calmly accepted his fate – his Cavaliers losing, 4-1, to a supercharged Warriors team that spent most of the postseason looking unbeatable.

“It’s just not my time,” LeBron said.

Will it ever be LeBron’s time again?

He’s 32. Golden State’s stars – Stephen Curry (29), Kevin Durant (28), Klay Thompson (27) and Draymond Green (27) – are all younger, and as long as ownership is willing to spend, the core can remain in tact.

“They don’t show any signs of slowing down,” LeBron said.

The last time LeBron got run like this in the Finals, he left the aging Heat to return to Cleveland, which had stocked up on assets through years in the lottery. Departing won’t be an option – this year, at least. The Cavs have LeBron locked up for one more season, and he obviously has am affinity for Northeast Ohio.

But these Warriors are a challenge unlike any other.

When LeBron lost to the Spurs in 2014, his final year in Miami, he was asked about matching up with San Antonio the following year.

“I don’t think it’s just the Spurs. It’s the whole league,” LeBron said. “The whole league continues to get better every single year.  Obviously, we would need to get better from every facet, every position.  It’s just how the league works.”

There was no such couching this year with Golden State, which LeBron called “one of the best playoff teams that this league has ever seen.”

“There’s going to be a lot of teams that’s trying to figure out ways to put personnel together to try and match that if they’re able to actually face them in the playoff series, both Eastern Conference and Western Conference,” LeBron said. “Because they’re built for – from my eyes, they’re built to last a few years.”

If a Warriors dynasty is just kicking into gear, that’d be tough timing for someone who is likely in the finals stages of his prime and is striving to surpass Michael Jordan. An ambition like that leaves little margin for error.

LeBron will never catch Jordan’s perfect 6-0 Finals record, a fact Jordan fans are quick to point out. But now LeBron (3-5 in the Finals) becomes just the fourth player – and first in decades – to lose five times in the title round.

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LeBron’s legacy is secure as an all-time great, especially considering his Finals competition. Jerry West (1-8) and Elgin Baylor (0-7) are comfortably in that class, and they have even worse Finals records.

But they’re also not in the Michael Jordan tier of excellence, a level LeBron could theoretically still reach.

Time is running out, though – even if it didn’t appear to be in these Finals

LeBron was again fantastic, becoming the first player to average a triple-double in the Finals (33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 10.0 assists). He shot 56.4% from the field, including 38.7% on 3-pointers.

Yet, it wasn’t close to enough.

The Cavs got outscored by just seven points in LeBron’s 212 minutes and by 27 points in the 28 minutes he sat. He somehow rested both not enough (tiring late in Game 3) and and way too much (Cleveland fell apart without him).

For the first time in the last three, maybe six,* years LeBron didn’t deserve Finals MVP. Durant outplayed him.

*I could go either way on LeBron and actual Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in 2014. LeBron – who won in 2012, 2013 and 2016 – deserved it in 2015 over Andre Iguodala.

The difference was defense. LeBron got roasted as the Cavaliers fell behind 2-0 in the series and picked up his intensity on that end only somewhat. Durant terrorized Cleveland with his length and basketball intelligence.

Of course, Durant shouldered a lesser load than LeBron while playing with so much more talent – making it easier to exert energy on both ends of the floor. But Durant out-produced LeBron this year and deserves credit for it.

That setup could remain in place for a while.

When will LeBron ever have to do less for his team to win a title? When will Durant ever have to do more?

“I have no reason to put my head down,” LeBron said. “I have no reason to look back at what I could have done or what I shouldn’t have done or what I could have done better for the team. I left everything I had out on the floor every single game for five games in this Finals, and you come up short.”

That’s a healthy attitude. It’s the attitude of someone secure in his place.

But it’s not the attitude of someone consumed with winning, the type of unhealthy obsession often necessary to win a championship.

And maybe LeBron has just matured beyond that point, much easier with three titles under his belt. He has a wife and kids and priorities outside basketball.

Earlier in the Finals, LeBron called the Warriors adding Durant “great.” Add his placid demeanor after the series, and it seemed LeBron was content because he realized the challenge – no matter how hard he fought it – was too great.

But before Game 5, LeBron hinted he hadn’t revealed his full true feelings about Durant joining Golden State.

Maybe, just maybe, the greatest player of this generation is still deeply driven to topple the greatest team of this generation.

Paul George-Gordon Hayward-Celtics rumor doesn’t add up

AP Photo/George Frey
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Paul George reportedly wants to play with Gordon Hayward. George is also reportedly willing to join his desired team (universally accepted to be the Lakers) by means that don’t guarantee the highest salary.

Could the Celtics – who are pursuing Hayward in free agency – leverage those conditions into getting George?

Adam Kauffman of 98.5 The Sports Hub:

I don’t what George would do, but it’d be a MAJOR financial disadvantage to go this route.

There a couple ways it could happen – George getting extended-and-trade or George getting traded then signing an extension six months later. The latter would allow George to earn more than the former, but even if he pledged to sign an extension, would the Celtics trade for him knowing he’d have six months to change his mind if he doesn’t like Boston as much as anticipated?

There’s a bigger issue, anyway. Both extension routes would leave George earning far less than simply letting his contract expire then signing a new deal, either with his incumbent team or a new one.

Here’s a representation of how much George could earn by:

  • Letting his contract expire and re-signing (green)
  • Letting his contract expire and signing elsewhere (purple)
  • Getting traded and signing an extension six months later (gray)
  • Signing an extend-and-trade (yellow)

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Expire & re-sign Expire & leave Trade, extend later Extend-and-trade
2018-19 $30.6 million $30.6 million $23,410,750 $23,410,750
2019-20 $33.0 million $32.1 million $25,283,610 $24,581,287
2020-21 $35.5 million $33.7 million $27,156,470 $25,751,825
2021-22 $37.9 million $35.2 million $29,029,330
2022-23 $40.4 million
Total $177.5 million $131.6 million $104,880,158 $73,743,861

Firm numbers are used when it’s just a calculation based on George’s current contract. When necessary to project the 2018-19 salary cap, I rounded.

The Celtics could theoretically renegotiate-and-extend, but that would require cap room that almost certainly wouldn’t exist after signing Hayward.

Simply, it’s next to impossible to see this happening. It’d be too costly to George.

Dwyane Wade on why he exercised his player option: ’24 million reasons’

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Dwyane Wade said he wanted to see the Bulls’ direction – winning now with Jimmy Butler or rebuilding? – before deciding on his $23.8 million player option for next season.

While Chicago was actively shopping Butler (before eventually trading him to the Timberwolves), Wade opted in, anyway.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

This is most real answer answer you’ll ever see. Props to Wade for his directness.

This also speaks to the unlikelihood of him accepting a buyout, no matter how poorly he fits with the rebuilding Bulls now – though maybe he’d accept a small pay cut to choose another team.

Medically risky prospects bring intrigue to 2017 NBA draft

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla dubbed Indiana forward O.G. Anunoby, who was slipping through the first round, a “sexy blogger pick.”

While I appreciate the compliment, Fraschilla was also right about another point: Those analyzing the draft for websites clearly valued Anunoby more than NBA teams. Fraschilla cited Anunoby’s limited offense, but it’s hard to get past Anunoby’s knee injury as a primary reason he fell to the Raptors at No. 23.

The 76ers adjusted us to the idea of picking an injured player high in the draft, with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in recent years. Even though Ben Simmons was healthy when picked, a later injury that cost him his entire rookie year conditioned us to the idea that sometimes top rookies don’t begin their pro careers ready to play.

But the 2017 NBA draft pushed back against that as a new norm. Most of the biggest tumblers on my board had injury concerns, from where I ranked them to where the went:

  • 12. O.G. Anunoby, SF, Indiana – No. 23, Raptors
  • 13. Harry Giles, PF, Duke – No. 20, Kings
  • 18. Isaiah Hartenstein, PF, Zalgiris – No. 43, Rockets
  • 19. Ike Anigbogu, C, UCLA – No. 47, Pacers

Anunoby had the aforementioned knee injury that even he, trying to paint himself in the most favorable light, said would cause him to miss some of the upcoming season. The strength of his game is a defensive versatility that would be undermined by a decline in athleticism.

Giles looked like a potential No. 1 pick in high school until three knee surgeries in three years derailed him. He was limited at Duke as a freshman, though reportedly acquitted himself in pre-draft workouts.

Hartenstein’s and Anigbogu’s medical issues were less widely know, but teams were apparently concerned.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

https://twitter.com/DraftExpress/status/878094857037676544

https://twitter.com/DraftExpress/status/878099339012210688

The 7-foot-1 Hartenstein is big enough to put a heavy load on his back. Just 19, he has nice vision as a passer and a developing outside shot that could allow him to spend more time on the perimeter and better take advantage of his passing.

Anigbogu was the youngest player drafted. He’s big and strong and mobile and throws his body around like a wrecking ball. He must develop better awareness and maybe even some ball skills, but there’s a path toward productivity.

Will these players blossom as hoped?

As I wrote when ranking Anunoby and Giles 12th and 13th before the draft, “I’m somewhat shooting in the dark” and “I’m mostly guessing here.”

This is the disconnect between the public perception of these players’ draft stocks and where they’re actually selected. We don’t have access to their medical records like teams do. We’re operating with far less information.

Still, it’s not as if teams always know how to interpret medical testing. Even with more information, this is hard.

I’m confident Anunoby, Giles, Hartenstein and Anigbogu would have gotten drafted higher with clean bills of health. So, this is an opportunity for the teams that drafted them. If the players stay healthy, they provide excellent value.

It’s obviously also a risk. If the player can’t get healthy, his value could quickly approach nil.

There are no certainties in the draft, but these four players present especially wide ranges of outcomes, which makes them among the more exciting picks to track in the years ahead.

Vlade Divac: Kings would have drafted De’Aaron Fox No. 1

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I sense a pattern.

Like Celtics president Danny Ainge saying Boston would’ve drafted No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum No. 1 if it kept the top pick, Kings president Vlade Divac said Sacramento would’ve taken No. 5 pick De'Aaron Fox No. 1 if it had the top pick.

Divac, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Screaming,” Divac said about the reaction in the room to Fox falling in their lap. “It was a guy that we all loved and in some way, if we had the number 1 pick, he would’ve been our guy.”
“De’Aaron is our future,” Divac added.

The Kings are getting a lot of credit for drafting well. Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t get the No. 1 pick, because it would have been foolish to pass on Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball (and others) for Fox. (The real punchline: Sacramento couldn’t have won the lottery due to Divac’s dumb salary dump with the 76ers giving Philadelphia the ability to swap picks.)

I don’t believe the Kings would’ve actually taken Fox No. 1. This sounds like Divac embellishing, which can be no big deal. It also puts outsized expectations on Fox, for better or worse.