LeBron gets to choose his destiny as free agency begins

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lebron_james_arty.jpgLiving in a free country has many advantages. You get to freely select where you live, who you marry, what you do with your time, where you work, what you do, what you say, and how you feel.

But along with those freedoms is a cost. It’s the money you need to accomplish what you want. It’s the fallout of what you say and how you represent yourself. It’s the meaning of the choices we make with the freedom we’re given.

Every decision has consequences. What we do, and how we do it, matters. We affect not only our own lives but those around us, and sometimes, in the rarest of circumstances, our decisions can influence communities, cities, states, the nation, the world.

LeBron James begins the final stretch of a path he began months ago. Years ago, really, when you consider how his last contract was structured, specifically, to lead to this moment, along with those of his friends and peers. This decision is one marked by pomp and circumstance, and just the attention the decision is garnering increases both his brand, and the pressure on him to make the right choice. This is the apex of his power, his ability to shape the league for years to come. And he has a series of priorities he has to align in this process, which isn’t easy.

James is, to be sure, soaking this moment in. He’s milking it for all it’s worth. He’s the biggest story of the summer, and he’s not dunking one basketball in public. He’s sought after, dreamed of, prayed for, and being begged everywhere he goes by casual fans and the rich and famous alike, to save their franchise. It’s a good feeling.

But what most people are missing is how important this decision is. Consider the following:

Bloomberg hours ago came out with an estimate that says that James’ departure could cut the value of the Cavaliers by $250 million. His name is being used in smear campaigns in elections. New York City’s Economic Development Corporation puts his impact on the city at over $57 million a year. Every city has a slogan. Every city has a campaign. Every city has a pitch. And James will have to decide what’s most important to him when he decides to put his name on the dotted line.

What exactly is he choosing between? Here is what hinges on his decision.

1. Money: This topic is broached with skepticism, disgust, and aversion by major media personalities and fans alike. We want our athletes to care more about their fans, more about winning, more about anything else than money. But realize, whatever James does, someone misses out, someone is hurt. If he leaves Cleveland, the franchise he helped resurrect will fall to ruin. This is the kind of thing that can submarine a franchise permanently. The city would be so burned by the ordeal it may never recover in terms of basketball. All the money that has poured in around the attraction of James departs.

If he goes to New York, he’s got the best chance of making the most for himself and his people. Forget the NBA salary. Six teams have room for his max. It’s about everything that goes along with it. Yes, we live in an internet age, and his exposure is universal. But the fact is that endorsing events, products, concepts in New York garners more money than it does elsewhere. And being based out of New York brings in more people which brings in more dollars. But what does he care? He’s going to make $16 million dollars next season, regardless. Why does the money matter?

Because he has an empire. Like it or not, James employs a good number of people. And he has the capacity to build brands, companies, endeavors which will both create more money for himself, and allow him the opportunity to pay more of those who support him. More money means more charity dollars. A bigger empire means more employees. Yes, we’re talking degrees of obscenity between net incomes, but those things do trickle down all the way. And that’s on his mind.

We live in a society where money talks, and cliche endeavors walk. He has a responsibility to himself, his employees, his family, and yes, his hangers-on to make the best decision he can, financially.

2. Championships: James has to win a championship. No, sorry, strike that. He has to win multiple championships. He needs to challenge Jordan and Kobe, and he does not have all the time in the world.

He’s 25, yes, but 28 will be here soon, and then 30, and then the window starts closing in, even for an athlete of his unbelievable stature. He has a responsibility to his fans, his legacy, and honestly, to basketball, to become a champion, and a perennial one at that. This is what we expect of him. It’s a vicious cycle. He performs amazingly, we demand he will his team to the playoffs. He dominates the playoffs, we demand he wins a championship. He wins a championship, and we’ll demand he wins more.

That’s what sports is. And from the day James stepped into the league, he’s been expected to reach that standard. It’s that pressure, that feature that will so heavily define his legacy (which will also impact his empire) that makes New Jersey a hard sell. That makes New York a hard sell. That makes the Clippers a near impossibility. And it’s the reason there’s so much discussion of teaming up with Wade or Bosh, or both.

LeBron has seen it. He’s fallen to it. He’s watched Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol (and Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum, and Ron Artest, and…) win titles and he knows that’s the new formula. A team with potentially three to four Hall of Famers just beat a team with potentially four to five Hall of Famers. That’s the model. And he knows if he wants to get where he needs to go, he’s going to need help. And not Mo Williams or Wally Szczerbiak or Shaquille O’Neal six years past his prime. He needs a partner, someone he can rely on, who is truly “excellent.” That’s what he has to be, in terms of his sport.

Chicago is there, with a core in place, and it’s obvious Bosh is receptive to that idea. There are downsides, but they’ve shown the commitment (out of nowhere) to putting him at the next level. The coach, the point guard, the role players, they’re all there. But he’s got to be sure. Absolutely sure. Miami?  Wade. Sure, they have no legit point guard and the only other player on roster is a basket case. But Wade. He’d have to share the spotlight, but will that really tarnish his legacy if they fulfill what they’re capable of? But it’s there. He has to consider it. And that ring will continue to be lorded over him, preventing him from reaching his ceiling (if he has one) as a player, as a legend, as a business until he obtains it.

3. Legacy: Chicago is his best immediate roster to contend for a championship. But there’s a statue out front already. No matter what James does, he’s going to be under that statue. He would have to win seven rings, and be the most dominant player on the floor and the league, be such an unstoppable force that even Bosh or whoever his his wingman is considered a footnote, in order for him to exceed the man whose statue stands outside the United Center. It’s a city rich with history, that holds up the Bulls as the one true championship organization (despite their last 13 years and no offense to the Blackhawks).

It’s a city that will demand greatness of him. But it comes with a cache of greatness just below that of t
he Celtics and Lakers. It’s his chance to put the Bulls in the same category, if he can make things go right.

New York stands as a testament to his greatness if it succeeds there. The greatest player in the world, in the greatest city in the world, in the world’s most famous arena, bringing New York back to basketball prominence. His name would be among some of the greatest athletes in the history of sports. And Alex Rodriguez. His life would be the utmost it can be, if he judges it by fame and fortune. His legend will be more if he’s successful in New York than it will be in New Jersey, in Miami, in Cleveland. It’s not fair. And it’s not right. But that’s the way of the world. And that’s something he needs to consider. He owes it to himself, to his people, to his fans to make the most of himself. And in terms of being elite, some would say the only way to do it is to to do it in New York.

But what about building your own legacy, in the world’s most famous town, across the bridge?  The Nets play in New Jersey for two more years. But he would then make his home in Brooklyn. A new franchise for a new era. The house that LeBron built. With Jay-Z as his marketing partner and mentor, running the borough like, well, a King. It’s one thing to be considered a great among greats of a franchise. It’s another to be the icon, the logo, the only one that matters.

But of course, if we’re talking legacy, we have to intertwine it with something else, the last, and possibly most important LeBron James must consider before he puts his signature on a dotted line.

4. Loyalty: Cleveland needs this. Ohio needs this. And he knows it. This is a city and state that spends half its time numb with sports disappointment, yet keeps coming back to the well. They keep asking for more. And James represents their best hope they’ve ever seen of greatness. He grew up there. He’s been a part of the area’s lore since he was a high school kid. He has given more, and been given more, than arguably any athlete ever has.

They watched Jordan’s jumper over Ehlo. They watched the Fumble. The drive. The Indians in general. But it goes deeper than that. They have invested themselves in this young man, identified with him, made him their own. They have put their hopes and dreams on him, and him leaving, for the destinations he’s being targeted by, isn’t just about sports. It speaks to the Midwest being abandoned, yet again, for the bright lights of a coast, or a city with East Coast qualities like Chicago. It’s a rejection of their values like family, loyalty, and the idea that where they live is somewhere worth being. Sure, it’s just a free agent. It’s just a basketball player.

But sports matter to people. We invest in them so that maybe we can get some sort of positive return. And Cleveland has had too much negative return. Re-signing with Cleveland is not the best choice for LeBron. It isn’t. There’s no way I can sit here and write that honestly. Jamison is getting older, and he was the big piece that was supposed to make it all work. The roster is good but not elite, the General Manager was let go, his assistant is running the show, and they can’t seem to find a coach. The franchise is in utter disarray at the absolute worst time. And that’s why re-signing with Cleveland would mean so much.

Other cities will offer him more, give him more, provide him with more opportunities. If his passion is his empire, New York will grow it. If his focus is his legacy, then Chicago or Miami can grant its ascendancy. But if his heart is in Akron, with the people he grew up with, with the fans that have cheered him on from puberty to the Finals, then Cleveland must be the choice.

It’s not the right choice. There is no right choice. No matter what, someone gets hurt by this decision, someone loses out, some part of him suffers an infraction.

It’s true that the choice is up to LeBron. He gets to make this choice with the freedom he’s been given, by God and this country, and this sport, and in reality, it won’t be the most important decision he’ll ever have to make. We make that every day with the kind of person we choose to be, with how we live among one another. But this decision has consequences which he needs to, and will consider. He’ll be wooed, lauded, and celebrated. But he’ll also be decried, defamed, and cursed. That’s the burden. That’s the glory. And it’s up to him.

Good luck, LeBron. We’ll be watching.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.

Dallas Mavericks near agreement to sign Kemba Walker

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York Knicks
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Looking for help spacing the floor and with secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks are turning to Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein was first with the news the sides were close to a deal, but since then multiple reports — plus comments from team owner Mark Cuban — confirmed it is happening.

This will be a veteran minimum contract (all the over-the-cap Mavericks can offer). To create the roster spot, the Mavericks will waive Facundo Campazzo, who was signed a few weeks ago and has barely touched the court for the team.

Walker averaged 11.6 points and 3.5 assists a game playing solidly in stretches for the Knicks last season, but the concern was his staying on the court — he appeared in just 37 games due to ongoing knee problems. Walker spent the offseason working on getting past those, but the Knicks traded him to Detroit for picks, but the Pistons were stacked at the point guard spot (at least before the season and injuries hit Cade Cunningham), so they bought out his $9.2 million for this season.

Walker worked to convince teams he still had plenty in the tank, but it was always going to take a situation where a team reached a certain level of desperation. Enter the Mavericks.

Doncic calls Antetokounmpo ‘the best player in the NBA right now’

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It was a matchup of two of the NBA’s top five players and two guys high in the way-too-early mix for MVP this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

Doncic carried the Mavericks again with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting plus 12 assists.

Antetokounmpo was a force of nature with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting plus 11 rebounds, plus he had more help around him leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

There is a mutual admiration society between these two players, and after the game Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the NBA. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo had praise for Doncic as well.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

We have many years of these two players testing each other, and someday it may be Antetokounmpo calling Doncic the best in the NBA.

Three things to know: The Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again

Golden State Warriors v Minnesota Timberwolves
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) The Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again

About that slow start in the Bay Area…

Over their last 11 games, the Golden State Warriors are 8-3 with a top-10 in the league offense and defense and a +4.5 net rating (fourth best in the league over that stretch). The latest win was Sunday’s destruction of the stumbling Timberwolves, 137-114, a game that saw the Warriors up by more than 20 in the first quarter and never truly threatened again.

“I think we’re starting to put it together and if we can keep building at this rate, you know, we’ll be poised for a run pretty soon here,” Draymond Green said.

All season long the Warriors have had Stephen Curry playing at an MVP level, carrying the team. So what has changed over the past few weeks that has the Warriors rolling? Three things.

First, Steve Kerr started staggering the rotation and separating Green’s and Curry’s minutes some, something he tried not to do much in the past. It’s one way Kerr dealt with the fact the Warriors’ bench has struggled (getting Donte DiVincenzo healthy helped as well). Curry now stays in for the entire first quarter, while Green gets his first rest about the five-minute mark, then Curry sits to start the second and Green returns to play with more of a bench unit (both stars finish the quarter together on the court).

“I’ve said for years Draymond is kind of the heartbeat of our team,” Kerr said. “He’s the guy who kind of makes everything go and he’s the motivator, he’s the bully, he protects his teammates on the floor, talks trash. But this guy is just so good at basketball.”

Second, the other way the Warriors dealt with the bench issue was Kerr scaled back the “two timelines” experiment. The idea was that the roles Otto Porter and Gary Payton Jr. filled last season could be filled by the young trio of James Wiseman, Moses Moody, and Jonathan Kuminga. That plan failed spectacularly. Wiseman is now down in the G-League, while Moody is out of the rotation. Kuminga is getting his shot — he played well against the Timberwolves — but has been up and down this season.

“I think we’ve settled into some roles, guys are comfortable now with when they’re gonna play who they’re gonna play with. So I think that’s been helpful,” Kerr said.

Third, Klay Thompson found his legs. He kept saying he needed more time, and whether it was a spark lit by Charles Barkley or Thompson getting off of social media and out of his own head, it’s worked. In his last 10 games Thompson is averaging 20.8 points a game and shooting 46.2% from 3. He is not defending like his old self (and may never again), but he’s back to being a No.2 scoring option on an elite team.

Green would throw in one more reason, the Warriors’ defense is back.

“Most importantly our defense has picked up which allows us to push the pace more,” Green said. “Like it’s one thing to push off makes, which we want to do, but when you’re pushing off a miss and getting a rebound then going, that’s tough to guard because it creates a lot of cross-matching.”

There was no magic bullet for Kerr to fire, it took a number of things to turn for the Warriors to get back to being themselves. But they have now, and the rest of the West should be worried.

2) Doncic says Antetokounmpo is “the best player in the NBA right now”

The Dallas Mavericks had no answers. Not that teams really ever do.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was a force of nature Sunday and dropped 30 with 11 boards on the Mavericks, leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

After the game, Luka Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the game. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo returned the compliment.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

Antetokounmpo and Doncic are two of the guys in the early MVP conversation, along with Curry, Jayson Tatum and a few others. It turns out, those first two also have a mutual admiration society going.

3) Clippers Ivica Zubac put up a monster 31 and 29 line against Pacers

No Kawhi Leonard, no Paul George, but the Clippers picked up another win on Sunday knocking off the Pacers 114-100.

Thank Ivica Zubac, who had a monster 31-point, 20-rebound game.

After the game, Zubac was made he fouled out before he could get his 30th rebound and have a 30-30 game.

Quietly, Zubac is having a fantastic defensive season for the Clippers, but like the rest of the team his offense has been up and down as they try to adjust to ever-changing lineups. That Clipper defense locked down the Pacers in the second half, plus Indy was just off shooting 9-of-42 from 3.

Zubac found his offense, the Pacers had no answer for him, and the Clippers have a win and improved to 12-9 because of it.