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.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell both make return from injury tonight

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Let’s try something different: How about some good injury news for a change?

Going through the roughest part of their schedule without their Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz have fallen out of the playoff picture in the West. The good news is Gobert is back starting Friday night.

The Brooklyn Nets took on a lot of salary (hello Timofey Mozgov) to get ahold of and see if they could develop D'Angelo Russell into their point guard of the future. However, he has been out since Nov. 12 and had to get his knee scoped to solve some issues. Now he is back as of Friday against Miami, and the Nets will again be able to get a look at him (as he heads into restricted free agency).

Neither of these returns are turning these teams into playoff teams, but they do help.

Brooklyn is not about the playoffs this season, but their gritty performances this season have picked up enough wins to frustrate Cavaliers fans (the Cavs have their pick in this draft). The Jazz are not completely out of the playoffs, but they are five games back in a deep Western conference and that will be hard to make up without some help. Getting Gobert back at least gives the Jazz a chance, and it’s an opportunity for Gobert and rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell to start to develop some chemistry.

Report: Cavaliers interested in George Hill trade with Kings

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When the Sacramento Kings made the much-maligned move to sign three veterans this summer to healthy contracts — George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter — there were three reasons for it. Two the Kings were very public about: They wanted mentors for the 10 young players on their roster, and they had to get up to the salary floor anyway.

The third, less discussed reason is those guys might make decent trade chips. Especially as the Kings move toward playing their youth more (as they should).

Enter the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are stumbling through the East right now and have reached out to the Kings about a potential trade for Hill, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

In an effort to bolster their backcourt situation, the Cleveland Cavaliers are expressing interest in a trade for Sacramento Kings guard George Hill, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Cleveland has emerged as an interested suitor, with the Cavaliers pursuing Hill to potentially slide into a dual-guard role, starting at either backcourt position or playing as a reserve, league sources said.

The Cavaliers are starting Isaiah Thomas at the point, with the assumption that he will find his groove as his conditioning improves and he gets used to playing next to LeBron James, however, they have had issues at the two spot. J.R. Smith starts there now with Dwyane Wade and Kyle Korver (both really more threes) behind him, but with Iman Shumpert out due to a foot injury the Cavaliers could use backcourt depth.

George Hill appears to have taken a step back this season, but he is still a solid guard who can shoot the three (45 percent this season) and be a good floor general. He could be a better backup point guard than Derrick Rose. Hill is not a season changer for Cleveland, but he would give them some solid depth and versatility.

The problem is money — Hill signed a three-year, $57 million deal with the Kings. The Kings might be open to a Hill for Tristan Thompson and a second rounder deal (no way Hill earns a first, even a Cavs late one).

Consider it something to watch. The Cavaliers have to get better at the trade deadline, although they have no plans to move the Brooklyn Nets pick. The Kings are open to the idea of a trade. It’s a first step.

Stan Van Gundy backs off feud with ESPN ahead of televised Pistons game

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Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy said he wouldn’t give ESPN its usual access – a private pre-game meeting and an in-game interview – in the aftermath of ESPN publishing LaVar Ball’s negative comments about Lakers coach Luke Walton.

The first test of Van Gundy’s new policy comes with today’s Pistons-Wizards game on ESPN… and Van Gundy is mostly backing down.

Van Gundy, via Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

“I got an email from Rick Carlisle of the coaches association and they want me to cooperate, so my whole idea was to boycott the thing in support of coaches,” Van Gundy said. “If the coaches don’t want that, then it would be a selfish thing, sort of a grandstanding thing.”

“I’m certainly not looking to do extra stuff with ESPN.com when those guys call and want to do things,” Van Gundy said. “They want to put themselves out there as a journalistic enterprise — they’re clearly not. They don’t have any journalistic standards. I have no obligation to do anything extra.”

Many media members have quoted Ball on a variety of issues. Coaches threw a fit over this one because they’re sensitive to coaches being criticized. It wasn’t about journalistic ethics or the source. Van Gundy and other coaches simply didn’t like Ball’s conclusion.

I’m so glad Van Gundy is no longer grandstanding. [extreme sarcasm]

He’s not obligated to speak with ESPN reporters, but when Van Gundy rails on journalistic standards as cover for disagreeing with the opinion a journalist published, he sounds a lot like the guy he loves to criticize.

Pistons’ Jon Leuer to undergo season-ending surgery

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Jon Leuer‘s ankles survived this.

But apparently they’re not invincible.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

After suffering a sprained ankle on Oct. 31, the symptoms worsened, as an exam revealed bone fragments and other issues. Leuer has missed the last 35 games and has decided to have season-ending ankle surgery, he told The Detroit News on Friday.

Leuer, 28, has scheduled the procedure to remove bone fragments for next Friday and will have a four-month rehabilitation process.

The Pistons have applied to the NBA for a disabled-player exception

The Pistons have been without Leuer for a while, and they’ve done fine without him. Anthony Tolliver is a capable backup stretch four, and Henry Ellenson adds even more insurance there. Detroit misses Leuer as a stretch center, providing a different style behind Andre Drummond, but Eric Moreland and Boban Marjanovic have at least decently handled those reserve minutes.

The bigger issue: The Pistons are paying Leuer $10,497,319 this season and owe him $19,510,724 over the next two years and don’t miss him that much. He’s a luxury they don’t need and maybe can’t afford.

Perhaps, they’ll deal him before the trade deadline, as they look to upgrade the roster for a playoff run. Detroit could send Leuer and a draft pick or young player (Stanley Johnson) for a better player on a more favorable contract. How about Leuer and a first-round pick to the Bulls for Nikola Mirotic?

A disabled-player exception (DPE) would be worth $5,248,660, half Leuer’s salary. It could be used to sign a free agent for the rest of the season or trade for a player in the final year of his contract.

But the NBA grants a DPE only if a league-appointed physician rules the player is “substantially more likely than not” to be unable to play through June 15. The reported timeline would have Leuer back in May.

Still, the league tends to be lax with giving out DPEs. Detroit has a chance to get one.

The Pistons are just $2,745,417 below the luxury-tax line. So, they’re unlikely to use a full Leuer DPE to acquire another player (and would still need to clear a roster spot). But it could be helpful in facilitating a bigger trade.