Author: Kurt Helin

LeBron James

PBT’s Top 10 Stories of 2014, No. 1: LeBron James returns home

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The story had drama. It had behind the scenes intrigue. It had people tracking private plane flights online. In the end one party was left bewildered because they didn’t think it would really happen.

Another city rejoiced.

Nothing was a bigger story, nothing changed the balance of power in the NBA like LeBron James returning home to Cleveland.

Nothing could bolster the popularity of the greatest basketball player on the planet more than returning home like a prodigal son to the city where fans had burned his jersey years before. This move sold well for LeBron (polls showed his national popularity skyrocketed).

There certainly had been people around LeBron — specifically his friend and new agent Rich Paul — who had been working behind the scenes to grease the skids for a return for some time, but this was still a surprise.

How big a surprise? First, know that Miami up until the final week or so really thought LeBron would return — they had just been to four straight NBA Finals and won two, why leave that foundation? Why would LeBron return to an owner who thrashed him in a Comic Sans letter?

But LeBron and Dan Gilbert looked each other in the eye and made up.

Second, the Cavaliers were surprised — they didn’t have the cap room ready. They had to make quick moves and dump salary to have room to sign LeBron James to the max.

Once it happened, the other dominoes started to fall. Mike Miller and Shawn Marion became Cavaliers. Then came the big move when Kevin Love forced his way there in a trade that wasn’t bad for Minnesota — they got the last two No. 1 overall picks, including the much heralded Andrew Wiggins. (Wiggins was caught in the middle of this during Summer League and handled it about as well as one could. Credit to the kid.)

Know that this move was not all about coming home. It was also about upgrading the talent around him on the basketball court — LeBron saw having Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was not enough against the Spurs last season and the West was getting stronger. He needed an upgrade and more youth and athleticism around him. He’s got that with Love and Kyrie Irving.

This also was a power play — LeBron and the people around him have more influence and say in the Cavaliers organization than they did in the ship Pat Riley ran so tightly in Miami.

But that’s not the story that was sold — and that America ate up.

Despite all the early turmoil and drama around the Cavaliers — and as long as LeBron is there they will be under that microscope — this move was a huge, huge win for the Cavaliers.

Northeast Ohio is starved for a title and their own son from Akron is going to bring them some. Not one but multiple over the next five to seven years. It’s not going to happen in 2015, there is a lot of work left to do to round out that roster and get players who will buy into the system. But it will happen. The path to an NBA title will soon go through Cleveland.

How about starting off 2015 watching a DeAndre Jordan reverse alley-oop? (VIDEO)

New York Knicks v Los Angeles Clippers
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The Clippers dispatched the Knicks on New Year’s Eve with all the ease that should have been expected from this matchup on paper. The Knicks have lost 19-of-20 while the Clippers — for all the questions about them — are still pretty much an elite team.

One that knows how to put on a show, like a Blake Griffin to DeAndre Jordan reverse alley-oop.

That seems like a great way to kick off 2015.

Tim Duncan… er, Omer Asik tips in own-goal buzzer-beater to send Spurs, Pelicans to OT (VIDEO)

Tim Duncan, Omer Asik
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The Pelicans had this one, on the road in San Antonio. After an Anthony Davis and-1 — the Pelicans go away from him far too much in crunch time, they finally trusted him at a key moment — all they had to do was defend the final 0.7. And they did the right thing, having a big man in Omer Asik playing free safety in the paint to deflect any lob attempts.

The Spurs sent Tim Duncan in for the lob anyway, Asik was there and… tipped it in.

The game went to overtime, where the Spurs won 95-93.

Asik’s New Year’s Eve champagne isn’t going to taste quite as sweet.

PBT’s Top 10 Stories of 2014, No. 2: Tanking

Hollis Thompson, Tony Wroten, Michael Carter-Williams, Henry Sims
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I do a fair amount of sports talk radio interviews across the nation, and through most of 2014, no matter what corner of the nation the station was located in, two topics almost inevitably came up. One was LeBron James and the drama that surrounded him in both Miami and Cleveland.

The other was tanking.

It has become part of the national conversation about the NBA — and the part that is an embarrassment to the league. The perception that a franchise would intentionally try to lose as many games as it could — even if the strategy made sense long term — was offensive to the American sports psyche. As the NBA moved through a fantastic playoffs in 2014 tanking was an ongoing parallel conversation. It was a PR nightmare for the league. It got to the point that the owners almost voted this summer to radically change the NBA Draft Lottery system to thwart the most egregious tanking. However, the owners backed away from that ledge at the last minute.

Let me be clear: No coach nor any player intentionally tried to lose a game. There is no evidence of this. Nobody is throwing games in a 1919 Black Sox sense.

Rather some organizations are intentionally putting a product on the court that is not going to win many games. There is logic to the plan. First, keep your draft picks and stockpile others in trades as you send out your veteran players. Next, be bad so your draft pick is as high as possible (the luck of the lottery will determine just how high). Play those young draft picks and inevitably be bad again — they learn on the job and you get more draft picks. Eventually you have a nice core of young talent for the future.

It sounds good on paper, you can sell that. But it’s ugly to watch in person.

Let’s be honest here — we’re primarily talking about the Philadelphia 76ers. Other teams have gone this route, but not like the Sixers.

Sixers GM Sam Hinkie has become the poster child of tanking. Back in June 2013 Hinkie traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for a draft pick, which they used on the inured Nerlens Noel, who didn’t play a game in the 2013-14 season. Hinkie traded Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes for guys that were not going to help then win games, plus some picks. This past draft the Sixers took Joel Embiid, a promising center but one not expected to play this season. Meaning the Sixers would be bad in the 2014-15 season — and they have been, they are 4-26 and again on their way to a top pick.

There are other teams, both in the past and currently, that have tried to be bad to get good. But nobody has tried to be this bad and been this naked about there intentions.

If you put a bad product out on the court people are going to complain.

It should be noted there was far more of an outcry outside Philadelphia than in it. Sure, there are some unhappy season ticket holders, but that’s not the norm. We talked with Dei Lynam of CSNPhilly.com for the PBT Podcast and she said that the first year fans were fully on board with the plan. Now the fans that are showing up to the arena are supportive of the players, but there is a growing exhaustion in the city with this much losing. They get what is going on, but the hope with this team seems very far off.

To be fair, in 2018 we’ll be saying Hinkie was a genius or a fool with this strategy, but it’s hard to know how it will pan out before then.

The question is how will the tanking perception and talk alter the NBA landscape going forward. There is always going to be a little of this — you need star players to really win in the NBA and the only way for middle to small markets to really land those elite players is through the draft. If they can be bad and increase their odds, they will. The Bucks did this in 2013-14 — they entered the season thinking they could be a playoff team, but when things went sideways they embraced being bad and got Jabari Parker for it. But this season the improving Bucks are a playoff team.

The Sixers are an ongoing conversation. And the question is in response will the owners change the lottery system to discourage that level of tanking in the future? And would that even work?

LeBron James says Christmas Day comments to Dwyane Wade not about basketball

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After the final horn of Miami’s Christmas Day upset of the Cleveland Cavaliers, good friends LeBron James and Dwyane Wade got together at center court and talked. With cameras running all around them. LeBron goes so far as to pull his jersey up over his mouth so people can’t lip read — like a baseball pitcher using his mitt to cover his mouth when talking to the catcher — but the cameras and mics pic up the audio. And it sure sounds like LeBron says:

“Like I said, if we aren’t better this year, we’re gonna reunite again and do some bigger and better things, alright? You already know.”

LeBron was asked about it and didn’t deny all the words, but he did deny this was a basketball comment. Via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

This created a stir on the heels of a report that LeBron would consider leaving the Cavaliers if it was the right business decision.

Let’s just be clear about this — LeBron James is not leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers. Not this coming summer, not in 2017.

After all the effort to sell his return to Cleveland as a homecoming, as a prodigal son story, to break his hometown’s heart for a second time would just be bad for business. It’s bad for his brand. His popularity would take a huge hit, he’d be enemy No. 1 again. He’s not going to do that.

He needs to focus on making Cleveland work.

Is this episode seen as a silly distraction to LeBron and Cavaliers loyalists? Sure. Welcome to having LeBron on your team. This is part of the package deal. Why don’t you ask the Heat players about the last four years? Better yet, ask Wade about it. He knows.