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LeBron James still striving to surpass Michael Jordan

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LeBron James has discussed chasing Michael Jordan’s “ghost,” motivating himself by trying surpass Jordan as the greatest player in NBA history.

Just 27 points behind Jordan for the all-time playoff scoring lead – a record he could break in Cavaliers-Celtics Game 5 tonight – LeBron is again discussing that pursuit.

LeBron, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

“It’s just a personal goal of mine,” James said Thursday before Cavs shootaround in preparation of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics. “It has nothing to do with passing the rings, passing the points, passing MVPs. It’s just my personal goal to keep me motivated — that’s all.”

“You guys are going to have the conversations about who is greatest of all time and things of that nature,” James said. “It doesn’t matter to me. At the end of the day, it’s so funny that the conversation is always talked about in the NBA about who is the greatest but it’s never talked about in the NFL about who is the greatest quarterback. It’s just like: [Dan] Marino, [John] Elway, [Peyton] Manning and [Tom] Brady. All great quarterbacks, you know — and it should be the same for us.

Jordan or LeBron? Save your hot takes. LeBron just burnt them all.

The greatest quarterback of all time is never debated? Claiming that is now the hottest take in the entire realm of the Jordan-LeBron debate.

Report: Bulls expect Dwyane Wade to opt in

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Dwyane Wade said he wants to see the Bulls’ plan for Jimmy Butler and the rest of the roster before deciding on a $23.8 million player option for next season.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

I can tell you is most everyone associated with the Bulls believes Wade will pick up the option and remain in Chicago for a second season. More surprising things have happened in league history, though. So stay tuned.

This could be a tell that Wade will opt in. The Bulls could obviously be positioned to base their prediction on inside information into Wade’s thinking.

This could a tell the Bulls won’t trade Butler. If they know they’ll keep Butler, they can extrapolate what that’d mean for Wade.

Or the Bulls, like so many of us, just assume a 35-year-old Wade won’t turn down so much guaranteed money at this stage of his career.

Kawhi Leonard injury an all-time "what if?"

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Eight days ago, we didn’t know whether Kawhi Leonard – who injured his ankle when Zaza Pachulia slid under his jumper – would play again this postseason.

But as a frustrated Gregg Popovich ranted about Pachulia’s dirtiness, I suspect the Spurs coach knew. I think Popovich knew, after years of anticipating a playoff matchup with the high-octane Warriors, Leonard’s injury had robbed San Antonio of a competitive conference finals – and maybe a championship.

The Spurs led Game 1 by 23 when Leonard got hurt. He never returned, and San Antonio blew its opening-game lead then lost Games 2-4 by 36, 12 and 14. None of the final three games were competitive down the stretch.

In all, the Spurs outscored Golden State by 21 in Leonard’s 23 minutes and got outscored by 85 otherwise.

The Warriors advance to their third straight NBA Finals. San Antonio is left wondering, what if?

Popovich’s Spurs have beaten nearly every highly touted team to come along during his reign as coach – the Chris Webber/Vlade Divac/Mike Bibby/Peja Stojakovic Kings, Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Goin’ To Work Pistons, Steve Nash/Mike D’Antoni Suns, LeBron James Cavaliers, Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks, Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook Thunder, LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Heat.

But these Warriors escaped San Antonio. The Spurs beat Golden State in the 2013 second round, but that wasn’t the same team. Those Warriors hadn’t started Draymond Green, signed Andre Iguodala or hired Steve Kerr – three people integral to Golden State’s identity. And of course, the Warriors hadn’t signed Kevin Durant, who turned this year’s squad into possible the greatest super team of all time.

At the same time, San Antonio was loading up. The Spurs were the second-best regular-season team over the last three years behind Golden State, but the teams didn’t meet in the playoffs.

Despite having the NBA’s third-best net rating, San Antonio had to face the Clippers (NBA’s second-best net rating) in the 2015 first round thanks to conference imbalance and a since-changed seeding system for division winners. The Clippers won a hard-fought seven-game series.

In 2016, the Spurs had an even higher net rating than Golden State, which went 73-9. But they ran into the Thunder, whose athleticism buzz-sawed them and nearly toppled the Warriors.

This year was San Antonio’s chance.

The Spurs showed an ability to adjust to spread attacks while topping the Rockets in the second round. In its next-level challenge, San Antonio – behind Leonard’s 26 points on 13 shots, eight rebounds and three assists – dominated early.

But as soon as Leonard went down, the entire series turned.

The Spurs outscored Golden State by 42 points per 48 minutes with Leonard and got outscored by 24 points per 48 minutes without him – one of the greatest disparities in a playoff series this era.

Here are all the series where a team performed at least 60 points better per 48 minutes with a certain player on the court rather than off since 2001, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference records go (requiring more than 10 minutes played, as to eliminate extreme garbage-time examples):

  • Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player off
  • Right: Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player on
  • Center: Difference

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Raw totals:

Player On Off
Chauncey Billups (2002 MIN 0, DAL 3) 0 in 134 min. -32 in 10 min.
Draymond Green (2015 GSW 4, NOP 0) +77 in 166 min. -45 in 31 min.
Gilbert Arenas (2005 WAS 4, CHI 2) +31 in 276 min. -20 in 12 min.
Pascal Siakam (2017 TOR 0, CLE 4) +14 in 10 min. -75 in 182 min.
Kobe Bryant (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +66 in 119 min. -22 in 26 min.
Kevin Garnett (2004 MIN 4, DEN 1) +58 in 206 min. -38 in 34 min.
Luke Jackson (2007 TOR 2, BRK 4) +14 in 11 min. -46 in 277 min.
LeBron James (2007 CLE 4, WAS 0) +47 in 182 min. -12 in 11 min.
Allen Iverson (2001 PHI 1, LAL 4) -25 in 239 min. -9 in 6 min.
Kawhi Leonard (2017 SAS 0, GSW 4) +21 in 24 min. -85 in 168 min.
Shawn Marion (2003 PHO 2, SAS 4) -17 in 283 min. -15 in 10 min.
Tariq Abdul-Wahad (2003 DAL 2, SAS 4) +19 in 16 min. -49 in 272 min.
Russell Westbrook (2017 OKC 1, HOU 4) +15 in 195 min. -58 in 46 min.
Shaquille O’Neal (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +55 in 131 min. -11 in 13 min.
Chris Webber (2001 SAC 3, PHO 1) +59 in 169 min. -21 in 23 min.
Tim Duncan (2001 SAS 4, DAL 1) +89 in 202 min. -31 in 38 min.
Kirk Hinrich (2016 ATL 0, CLE 4) +11 in 12 min. -61 in 180 min.
Thomas Gardner (2009 ATL 0, CLE 4) +12 in 16 min. -84 in 177 min.

This list is essentially divided into three groups:

  • Bench-warmers who played a few good minutes while their team got torched throughout the series. Pascal Siakam, Luke Jackson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Kirk Hinrich and Thomas Gardner fit this category.
  • Stars who dominated while on the court and saw their teams torched when they sat. For example, in the massive leader in this stat, the Timberwolves played the Mavericks even in the 2002 first round with Chauncey Billups on the court. But Minnesota got outscored by 32 in the 10 minutes Billups sat the entire series and got swept. (Billups was starting for an injured Terrell Brandon, so Robert Pack got pressed into duty behind Billups.)
  • Kawhi Leonard. Every other star played a high majority of his teams’ minutes, essentially as much as he could handle. Then, his team just hoped to hang on in the star’s brief breathers. Leonard was stuck on the bench nearly the entire series, watching the the Spurs look helpless after he led them to a commanding advantage.

To be fair, San Antonio wouldn’t have necessarily won with Leonard.

Golden State was better than the Spurs throughout the season, and the lopsided start was a small sample. Simple regression to the mean could have tilted the series.

Also, the Warriors are at their best with Draymond Green at center, and they used that lineup just 11 seconds before Leonard’s injury. In 59 minutes with Green at center in the series, Golden State posted offensive/defensive/net ratings of 123.9/90.3/+33.5. If they needed to lean on those lineups more to beat a Leonard-led Spurs, they could have.

Yet, I can’t stop wondering what would have happened if Leonard stayed healthy.

The question towers over the last great playoff-injury fascination – whether the Cavaliers would have won the 2015 Finals if Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were healthy.

I contend no. The Warriors were better than Cleveland overall each of the last two years, and they were a stylistic problem for the Cavs – especially Love and especially in 2015. The Cavaliers winning in 2016 adds doubt, but Stephen Curry was hobbled and Draymond Green got suspended for a game. A hungrier and more available 2015 Golden State team was more primed to win than the 2016 edition that lost to Cleveland.

Perhaps, a 2017 Finals rubber match will inform my opinion how Love’s and Irving’s injuries affected the 2015 NBA championship. For now, I’m sticking with the Warriors winning anyway.

But with Leonard’s injury in this year’s conference finals, I just don’t have a feel for whether the Spurs would have prevailed.

And that’s the most frustrating part.

Report: John Wall contract extension Wizards’ top priority, but he’s unsure about committing

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Wizards guard John Wall can sign a contract extension this year, sign an extension next year or become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. No matter when he signs – because he’s still under contract for two more seasons – the new terms would take effect in 2019-20.

When will he lock in?

By making the All-NBA third team, Wall became eligible to sign a designated-veteran-player contract extension with Washington this summer. But because he has two years left on his current deal ($18,063,850 in 2017-18 and $19,169,800 in 2018-19), an extension could add just four years to his contract.

This is the only time Wall is guaranteed be eligible for a designated-veteran-player salary, though. He could add five years at the designated-veteran-player rate by making All-NBA in 2017-18 or 2018-19, but that’s obviously no guarantee.

Does Wall want to sign now, even for fewer years, while he’s designated-veteran-player eligible? Do the Wizards want to give him that higher max in order to secure his services for just four additional years?

J. Michael of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

An extension with Wall will be the top priority of the offseason in which Otto Porter is also a restricted free agent, league sources tell CSNmidatlantic.com.

From league sources close to the situation, Wall wants to see a bigger picture plan on where the franchise is headed before committing for longer.

Wall has never advanced past the second round, and he sounded disappointed in his supporting cast after the Wizards lost to the Celtics in this year’s second round. He has also expressed unhappiness about his lack of popularity in Washington.

But that’s a lot of money to turn down. Wall can’t simply pencil himself onto another All-NBA team is this guard-dominant league.

A designated-veteran-player projects to be worth $217 million over five years. If Wall plays out his contract without making an All-NBA team the next two years, his projected max – even if he re-signs with the Wizards – projects be worth $186 million over five years. That’s a $31 million difference!*

*Using Albert Nahmad’s $107 million salary-cap projection for 2019-20

Would Wall take such a large financial risk?

He must weigh his priorities (security vs. flexibility, staying in Washington vs. leaving) and his chances of making another All-NBA team in a league with Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Isaiah Thomas, DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson and Kemba Walker.

Here’s a flowchart showing Wall’s possible outcomes and what his max contract projects to be in each scenario:

John Wall extension (4)

Cavaliers embarrass Celtics 130-86, take dominant 2-0 lead in series

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Are we sure the Cavaliers are not the Monstars?

Boston switched up their starting lineup, putting Gerald Green in the mix. The Celtics gang rebounding a focus and switched up their defensive coverages. They played with more energy.

It didn’t matter. Boston started the game shooting 0-of-7 from the floor, trailed by 14 after one quarter as the Cavaliers went on a 28-6 run spanning the first and second, and by halftime Boston had scored just 31 points and trailed by 41 (an NBA record for largest halftime deficit in a playoff game).

“It was honestly just embarassing,” Avery Bradley said after the game. “They came out not only playing harder, they knocked down shots, and I think that made it that much worse.”

Actually, things still got worse: Boston’s Isaiah Thomas strained his right hip late in the first half and missed all of the second half. His status going forward is unknown, but the injury is considered “significant” according to Chris Mannix of The Vertical (he also works for Comcast Sports Net which broadcasts Celtics games). Thomas was 0-of-6 shooting for two points in this game and was again completely smothered by the Cavaliers defense.

The Cavaliers won 130-86 to take a commanding 2-0 series lead as the series now heads to Cleveland for Game 3 on Sunday.

LeBron James had 30 points, his 18th career and eighth straight 30-point playoff game (the latter of those tying Michael Jordan for the most all time). And he didn’t even play the fourth quarter. Kyrie Irving added 23, Kevin Love had 21 points and 12 rebounds.

“We’re very focused,” Irving said in a televised interview after the game, and maybe understating things a bit. “We have a lot of confidence in what we have as a team and when we come out and play like this, anything’s possible.”

This loss had to devastate Boston’s confidence. It’s hard not to imagine this ending in a sweep. Right now the Cavaliers are 10-0 so far this postseason.

In Game 2, we could talk about how Boston had no answer for the LeBron at center lineups, or how Cleveland’s passing was crisp while Boston was slow to recover, or a host of other things, but the real issue for Boston is they just cannot find a way to score on a suddenly-focused Cavaliers defense. They had no flow to their sets, everything they tried they got taken out of by the Cavaliers. The Celtics had an offensive rating of 75 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter, and the second quarter was worse. Things like this kept happening.

There has been a lot of talk this week about the Celtics future, especially with them now holding the No. 1 pick in the draft. As ugly as the losses have been for Boston in this series, they validate GM Danny Ainge’s decision to not to trade that pick and other players at the deadline for Paul George or Jimmy Butler — they would have not changed the outcome of this series. Made it closer, maybe gotten Boston a win, but that’s it for what would have been a high price. Boston has been patient and now you can see why, and you can see the path forward: Draft Markelle Fultz, make a hard run at Gordon Hayward in free agency, but if he decides to stay in Utah then make a run at someone else in 2018. Make sure the fits are right, find some guys who can be stronger inside and on the glass, and continue to improve. Boston made a step forward this season to get the No. 1 seed and reach the conference finals, just continue to build off that. Don’t panic and rush things.

For Cleveland, just stay healthy. The biggest test is yet to come.