Will LeBron James keep outlasting Eastern Conference field?

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DETROIT – When I brought up comments he made about LeBron James during the Cavaliers’ sweep of the Raptors in last year’s playoffs, Kyle Lowry responded before I even asked a question.

“Finish the quote, though,” Lowry said. “Go look at the whole quote.”

The headline:

Kyle Lowry: ‘They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him’

“The whole quote,” Lowry insists. “So, what did it say? Go ahead.”

The second paragraph and first quote:

“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical late Friday night. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”

“Did you finish the quote?” Lowry asks again.

Finally, the fifth paragraph (which followed a large image):

“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”

To Lowry, the key portion of the quote: “You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.” He believes people took his statement out of context with that part buried.

“Yes, they did,” Lowry said. “For sure. That’s why it kind of got to me.”

Lowry said he meant no disrespect with his defensiveness, and I took none. He sounded tired of hearing about that quote for nearly an entire year.

He doesn’t want that soundbite to go the way of Brandon Jennings‘ “Bucks in 6,” Lance Stephenson‘s ear blow and Stanley Johnson‘s “I’m definitely in his head” as the latest punchline in LeBron’s reign of Eastern Conference dominance. No, Lowry wants to end LeBron’s rule completely.

“We’ve got to be better than him to be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “And that’s what it is. We’re not afraid of him. We’ve got to be a better team and figure out how to beat him and beat every other team.”

The Raptors are the last challenger standing in the wreckage left in LeBron’s wake.

LeBron has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles, four with the Heat then three with the Cavs. In that span, he’s 21-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series and 84-21 in Eastern Conference playoff games.

Of the 21 Eastern Conference teams LeBron has beaten in this run, 11 have completely turned over their roster since losing to him.

LeBron has broken up the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Rajon Rondo Celtics, Paul George-Roy Hibbert-Lance Stephenson-David WestGeorge Hill Pacers, Derrick RoseJoakim NoahLuol Deng Bulls, Al HorfordPaul MillsapKyle KorverJeff TeagueDeMarre Carroll Hawks and Isaiah ThomasAvery BradleyJae Crowder Celtics. Yup, LeBron is going for seconds.

Of Eastern Conference players who lost to LeBron’s Miami teams, only John Henson (2013 Milwaukee) and Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller (2014 Charlotte) have remained with the same team. And those were teams LeBron swept in the first round, hardly marquee competition.

Here’s everyone who has played against LeBron in the Eastern Conference playoffs the last seven years. Players are sorted by minutes in the series. Those in green remain with that team. Those in red and crossed off changed teams (though three – Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings and Omer Asik – returned).

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LeBron’s moves from Cleveland to Miami in 2010 and then back to Cleveland in 2014 were obviously monumental. But his presence has loomed over the entire East.

“You’re gauged on if you can beat his team that gets to the Finals every year,” said Bucks center John Henson, the only man who has stayed with an Eastern Conference team beaten by LeBron’s Heat from 2011-2013. “Constantly building and rebuilding and trades are being made to dethrone him.”

Paul George takes pride in pushing LeBron as hard as anyone in the East has during this time. His Pacers were the last Eastern Conference team to reach even a Game 7 against LeBron (2013 conference finals), and Indiana battled the Heat in a hard-fought six-game conference finals the following year.

“Going through that changed me as a player, changed my learning, my experience,” George said. “And that’s what it came down to. I was very proud of where we, that group that competed in that Eastern Conference finals, I’m very proud of what we accomplished in that short period of career we had together.”

George has moved on to the Thunder in the Western Conference, where the competition certainly isn’t easier, but at least doesn’t include LeBron.

Al Horford helped the Hawks win 60 games in 2014-15 only to get swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the conference finals. Atlanta returned mostly intact the following year, but got swept by LeBron again.

“They just kind of just kept wearing down on us over the years,” Horford said.

Now, Horford is with Boston, again trying to get past LeBron.

The Celtics appear particularly conscious of LeBron. While still competitive, they traded icons Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. Though the Nets’ ridiculously generous offer certainly helped, it’s hard to believe Boston wasn’t influenced by LeBron being in his prime.

That prime has only continued. After losing in five games to LeBron’s Cavs in last year’s conference finals, Boston got rid of 11 of 15 players.

If the Celtics’ front office fears LeBron (wisely, if it does), it shares company with his opponents on the floor

“Some people he plays in this league, for sure, get intimidated,” said P.J. Tucker, who faced LeBron with the Raptors last year. “…People, when you watch the TV, you think he’s just going to come in and just manhandle you.”

Of course, LeBron isn’t doing this alone. He played with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.

But that’s part of the lore. LeBron has engineered super teams so he could dominate a conference for the better part of a decade.

Continuing the streak won’t be easy. The 76ers are growing up before our eyes. The Celtics are young and good, and they’ll be healthier another year. The Raptors are digging in.

And the Cavs look vulnerable. Their defense is ugly. For the first team in this era, LeBron has only one supporting star, Love. The Cavaliers are just the No. 4 seed, LeBron’s lowest seed since 2008. Though LeBron isn’t worried, that means a first-round matchup with the Pacers (48-34) – the best record of any of LeBron’s first-round opponents.

LeBron has won all 12 of his first-round series, including 21 straight first-round games. Given how much Cleveland relies on him, even a prolonged series with Indiana could have lasting negative consequences deeper in the playoffs.

The last time so much was on LeBron’s plate was 2010, when his top teammates were Mo Williams and a declining Antawn Jamison. The Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the second round.

Rajon Rondo, now with the Pelicans, said he had no idea that Boston squad was the last non-LeBron team to win the East.

“He won seven straight, huh?” Rondo said. “It’s looking like it’s about to be eight.”

Three Things to Know: Who is in, who is out, games that matter in West playoff chase

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Where we stand: Insane West playoff chase explained (mostly). Back in 2014 — the year Taylor Swift was shaking it off and we were all trying to shake off hearing her again — the Suns won 48 games and missed the playoffs. It was unprecedented.

This season is getting close to that. Some team is going to win 46 games and miss the postseason in the West. After a wild weekend of games, here is where the playoff chase in the West stands and what to watch, in bullet point form:

• The magic number to get in is going to be 47 wins — reach that and teams will be invited to the dance. There are scenarios where 46 wins is good enough, but get to 47 wins and teams are safe.

• The Pelicans, Spurs, and Thunder are all at 46-34 and made up seeds 5-7 currently, the Timberwolves and Nuggets are both 45-35 and tied for 8-9.

• With their win over the Lakers Sunday night, the Jazz are officially in (with 47 wins, they cannot fall out due to tiebreakers). Seeding is still up in the air, they could land anywhere from three to eight (with eighth being unlikely but technically possible).

• After their loss to the Nuggets Saturday, the Los Angeles Clippers are officially out.

• Monday night games to track: Oklahoma City at Miami, Memphis at Minnesota, Sacramento at San Antonio, New Orleans at the Los Angeles Clippers, and the big one is Portland at Denver.

• If Minnesota beats Memphis Monday (very likely) and Denver beats Portland that same night (less likely, but possible), then the Timberwolves and Nuggets will remain tied and play Wednesday for the eight seed — a play-in game. Denver technically is the nine seed by tiebreaker, but they control their own destiny — win out and they are in.

• Utah at Portland on the last night of the season could determine the three seed. That assumes that the Jazz beat the Warriors Tuesday, something that is no lock (although Golden State is locked into the two seed and not very focused right now). Utah will be on a back-to-back and it will be their third game in four nights, but this is a determined team right now.

2) Philadelphia gets to 50 wins and locks up home-court advantage in the first round. Read that again, because it’s harder to believe than alien abduction stories. Almost. This team won 28 games a season ago, 10 the season before that, 18 the one before that. Throughout the tribulations of “the process” Philly, on paper, looked like a team that could come be a force if things broke right — but for it to all break right that fast is mind-boggling. And that is without No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz contributing much.

Brett Brown deserves a lot of credit here. Throughout the years of losing, he had them playing hard and learning defensive principles. He built a culture despite the challenges. He is not going to win Coach of the Year this season, but the man has to be considered.

The Sixers may well finish with the three seed in the East (they currently are the three, one game up on the Cavaliers in fourth). Do that, get through the first round (against likely Miami or Milwaukee, which will not be easy), get Joel Embiid back, then beat the Celtics/the seven seed that knocks off the Celtics, and the Sixers are in the Eastern Conference Finals. That is a completely reasonable path. And if you had said “the Sixers can make the Eastern Conference Finals next year” last April we would have put you in the asylum with the alien abduction people.

3) Mitch Kupchak is the new GM in Charlotte. It became official on Sunday, the North Carolina guy got the job with the North Carolina team owned by a North Carolina grad. This was the safe play for the Hornets. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong play, or that it will not work out, but it’s the safe play. Kupchak brings a resume to the table the Hornets can sell — he’s got four rings as the Lakers GM — and a style and standing that will sell in the community. He’s got a good relationship with the owner, Michael Jordan. There’s a lot of good reasons to make this hire.

Kupchack’s GM record in Los Angeles is hit-and-miss. There were highs — the Pau Gasol trade, drafting Andrew Bynum (who was good with the Lakers and helped them to rings), and even the failed Steve Nash/Dwight Howard move was bold and seen as brilliant before that team took the court. In general, he drafted well, often at the back of the draft. Nobody should question his eye for talent.

However, in his final years in Los Angeles, there was a sense from some around the team that the game had passed him by. Kupchak completely misread the market in the contracts for Luol Deng (four years, $72 million), Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) and even Jordan Clarkson (four years, $50 million, although the Lakers were able to eventually trade that one). He expected there to be an amnesty clause in the new CBA and there wasn’t, and he though those contracts could be easily traded (it cost the Lakers former No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell to move Mozgov). There also were reports that the old-school Kupchak was a bit behind the modern NBA curve — he wouldn’t reach out through back channels to agents and free agent players before July 1, and that had him starting steps behind other teams. Not all of this was on Kupchak he was a good soldier for the Lakers’ organization and certainly the former head of basketball operations in L.A. Jim Buss had the ultimate say on those moves. However, Kupchak at the very least didn’t talk Buss out of those decisions. (Both Buss and Kupchak were trying to keep their job, which also can account for the errors.)

There are real questions in Charlotte for Kupchak to answer. The big one is a matter of direction for the coming years: do they trade Kemba Walker and jump-start a rebuild, or do they retool around him (with Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum on the roster) and aim to be a playoff team for a couple more seasons? Ultimately that is a decision Jordan must make, and in that market moving Kemba followed by a few bad years may sting more than the “tear it down” contingent realize, but it’s something where Kupchak needs to sway Jordan.

What does Kupchak’s hiring mean for coach Steve Clifford’s job security? That is up in the air, but Clifford was an assistant coach with the Lakers while Kupchak was a GM, that could buy him some trust and another year.

Mitch Kupchak reaches deal to become GM of Charlotte Hornets

Associated Press
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After going with the analytics, outside-the-box hire last time in Rich Cho, Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Hornets are going old-school NBA with their next front office hire.

Former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has reached a deal to become the next GM in Charlotte, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the team.

“I’m excited to join the Hornets organization and I want to thank Michael for this opportunity,” Kupchak said in a statement. “I am well aware of the passion for basketball in Charlotte and throughout the entire state of North Carolina‎, and I am confident that we can build the Hornets into a successful team that our great fans can be proud of.”

There is no surprise here, Kupchak has been the frontrunner since the day it was announced Cho was out as GM. Kupchak and Jordan have a relationship forged through their ties to North Carolina and former coach Dean Smith.

Kupchak steps into a team with big questions hanging over it — do they trade Kemba Walker and jump-start a rebuild, or do they retool around him (with Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum on the roster) and aim to be a playoff team for a couple more seasons?

What does that mean for coach Steve Clifford’s job security? That is up in the air, but Clifford was an assistant coach with the Lakers while Kupchak was a GM, that could buy him some trust and another year.

Kupchak brings a resume that includes four rings won with the Lakers — including the smart trade for Pau Gasol, drafting Andrew Bynum (who was good with the Lakers), and even the failed Steve Nash/Dwight Howard move was bold and seen as brilliant before that team took the court — plus he has a presence and demeanor that will play well in Charlotte. Also, he drafted well, often at the back of the draft.

There was also a sense in some quarters in Los Angeles that the game had passed him by. He completely misread the market in the contracts for Luol Deng (four years, $72 million), Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) and even Jordan Clarkson (four years, $50 million, although the Lakers were able to eventually trade that one). Kupchak was a good soldier for the Lakers’ organization and so how much of those moves were the brainchild the former head of basketball operations in L.A. Jim Buss is up for debate, but Kupchak at the very least didn’t talk Buss out of those moves. (Both Buss and Kupchak were trying to keep their job, which also can account for the errors.)

There also were reports that the old-school Kupchak was a bit behind the modern NBA curve — he wouldn’t reach out through back channels to agents and free agent players before July 1, and that had him starting steps behind other teams.

Kupchak may be the safe choice for the Hornets, but that’s not necessarily bad.

Report: Hornets close to hiring Mitch Kupchak as president, general manager

AP Photo/Alex Gallardo
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The Hornets reportedly offered their general-manager job to Mitch Kupchak.

Unsurprisingly, the man whose last major moves were signing Luol Deng (four years, $72 million), Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) and Jordan Clarkson (four years, $50 million) hasn’t found a better offer elsewhere.

Somewhat surprisingly, Kupchak is apparently getting a loftier title than he had with the Lakers.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Charlotte Hornets have made significant progress in contract talks with Mitch Kupchak to become president of basketball operations and general manager, and a formal agreement is expected to be reached soon, league sources told ESPN.

Kupchak will keep assistant general manager Buzz Peterson in a front-office role, and Kupchak ultimately will add his own personnel changes to the team’s management and scouting structure, league sources said.

All along, Kupchak was expected to keep Peterson. Hornets owner Michael Jordan, Kupchak and Peterson all played at North Carolina. This is yet another indicator Jordan overvalued the Tar Heel connection when choosing Kupchak.

Maybe Kupchak is up for the daunting task in Charlotte. He built multiple Lakers title teams. But if he hadn’t gone to North Carolina, would Jordan have hired him? Will Kupchak’s college choice make him any better in this role than if he played at, say, Kansas?

It won’t matter now. The Hornets are full steam ahead with Kupchak.

Kobe Bryant tells Shaq he was planning to leave Lakers for Bulls (VIDEO)

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Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal got their three championships together as members of the Los Angeles Lakers. The two stars were part of the three-peat team that won in 2000, 2001, and 2002. But the story that perhaps overshadows those accomplishments in the modern era is the story of Kobe vs. Shaq, and the long-standing beef that was between the players even after they split in 2004.

The back-and-forth between the two is part of the fabric not just of the Lakers, but of pop culture as it surrounds basketball. The Shaq/Kobe beef even has it’s own Wikipedia page that’s longer and more well-sourced than most of the papers I wrote in college. It’s impressive.

Meanwhile, Kobe and Shaq sat down in a long special that aired on Saturday as All-Star Weekend ramped up that revealed quite a bit about their time together and their relationship. One of the more interesting anecdotes was Kobe telling Shaq that he was planning on leaving the Lakers for the Chicago Bulls in 2004. That plan was quashed when the team sent O’Neal to the Miami Heat in July.

Via Twitter:

That would have been a major shift for LA and for Chicago. The Bulls drafted both Ben Gordon and Chris Duhon that year, and traded for Luol Deng. The team improved by 24 wins the following season, and adding Bryant may have altered that trajectory and of course sent shockwave of consequential changes through the league. Heck, Scottie Pippen retired that October, but perhaps he would have stayed for one more year with Kobe?

The rest of the interview was interesting, and there were lots of tidbits of information that had people talking. Bryant and O’Neal rehashed their fights, Shaq’s infamous rap dissing Kobe, and mooning Sacramento Kings fans after beating them in the 2002 playoffs.

The biggest takeaway from the interview was how the one-upsmanship between Shaq and Kobe, although subtle, still remains.

As context, Bryant has done a fair bit of career revisionism as he tries to alter his public image now that he’s not a player. He’s painted himself as a “storyteller” and has tried to make his single-mindedness appear praiseworthy rather than destructive. It’s mostly so he can sell shoes well into his 50s à la Michael Jordan.

In the sit down between the two Lakers greats, Shaq did some legacy revision of his own. He played off his continuous egging of Bryant over their careers as simple media manipulation, calling himself a master marketer. It really was a thing to see something that hilariously disingenuous, especially as much of the conversation between the two — including many admissions on each side — were about times they made each other sincerely angry.

The two finished the interview by taking photos next to some championship trophies (Kobe with more, of course) and exchanging laughs and hugs.

You can watch the full interview in the video above.