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.

Three Things to Know: Playoff Lakers activated, come from 19 down to upset Rockets

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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) Lakers activated, come from 19 down to beat Rockets — now can they sustain it. Led by “playoff mode activated” LeBon James, Thursday night was exactly the kind of win the Lakers need if they are going to climb back into the postseason in the West.

But only if can they build on it. Remember that the Lakers’ biggest win of the season, on Christmas Day over the Warriors? That was followed up by losing 5-of-6. LeBon lifted up his teammates and his team on Thursday night — now he needs to do it again. And again. One good win is not enough at this point.

However, make no mistake: Thursday night was a good win for Los Angeles. Trailing by 19 midway through the third quarter, LeBron James (16 points in the game’s final 18 minutes, 29 for the game) and Kyle Kuzma (18 points on the night) sparked the comeback.

Los Angeles won 111-106, moved back to .500 (29-29), are just 2.5 games back of the Clippers, and it helps that the Kings lost, too (now just one game up on the Lakers).

James Harden kept his streak of 30-point games alive with a floater late in the fourth (32 in a row now at 30+), but he shot just 2-of-7 overall and 0-of-4 from three in the fourth quarter and fouled out late in the game. Harden was frustrated with the calls — and had a right to be. Harden picked up three offensive fouls late, one on a nothing contact at midcourt with Rajon Rondo that Rondo sold, and one on a charge call where Kuzma slid under Harden while he was in the air. The Rockets are convinced referee Scott Foster is out to get them (Chris Paul fouled out, too) and the game film from this one will fuel their paranoia for a while.

Of course, the referees didn’t force the Rockets to miss wide open shots down the stretch, either. The Rockets finally had their full team back — Clint Caplela and Chris Paul played — but looked like a team rusty after a week off.

LeBron and the Lakers got an aggressive, attacking game from Brandon Ingram — something else that has come and gone this season — on his way to 27 points. Reggie Bullock knocked down a key three and — in something incredibly rare for the Lakers — hit his free throws when it mattered on his way to 14 points. Josh Hart looked healthy and moved well, he had his best game in a while.

The Lakers’ next two games are winnable — at New Orleans and at Memphis — and if they are serious about making the postseason, those are games they have to pick up. For a night playoff mode was activated, but the real test for LeBron and company remains ahead of them.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks every bit the MVP — especially on defense — and the Bucks remind everyone they are for real. In an often-sloppy one-point game every play matters, and Giannis Antetokounmpo not giving up on this one and getting the chase down block on Jayson Tatum was one that mattered a lot.

That was an MVP-level play. Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 13 boards on the night and was just rock steady on a night little else was.

With the 98-97 win in a sloppy game, the Bucks improved to 8-3 this season against the other elite teams in the East (Toronto, Indiana, Philadelphia, and Boston). Milwaukee has won 15-of-17.

It’s fair to wonder what happens in the playoffs when the defensive pressure is cranked up on Eric Bledsoe (he’s struggled before), and will the Bucks’ shooters keep hitting through the smaller windows afforded them in the postseason. But don’t doubt this — they are capable of hitting those shots and playing under pressure. They are more than capable of winning. The Bucks are real contenders and want to show that on the biggest of stages.

Boston was frustrated not getting some calls, including thinking the Greek Freak fouled Tatum on that breakaway dunk above. Then on the final play, with Boston down one, Brad Stevens drew up something where Kyrie Irving set a backscreen and Marcus Morris cut to the rim and he was coming open — until Khris Middleton fouled him. The Bucks ended up just getting the ball to Irving, who drove and put up a wild shot that missed, but Morris was hot after the game about the no-call. He was right. However: 1) The Bucks had a foul to give so it still would have been ball out of bounds; 2) That one play was not why they lost the game — Irving was 9-of-27 shooting and the Celtics as a team shot just 38.2 percent on the night. The Celtics had their chances but just missed.

3) Stephen Curry dunks! Oh, and hit 10 threes in Warriors win. Stephen Curry had zero dunks this season (according to Basketball-Reference), but he ended the All-Star Game in Charlotte with a reverse throwdown, then on Thursday night he did this.

The bench’s reaction is the best.

Curry also did Curry things — 10-of-16 from three on his way to 36 points.

The Warriors won 125-123 and swept the season series from the Kings — but every game was close, every game hard-fought and the Kings made the Warriors work. It would make a fun first-round playoff series. Sacramento had a chance to steal this game but Buddy Hield passed up a three from a spot he’d hit one 12 seconds before to drive the lane and miss the floater to tie. If the Kings are going to get into the playoffs and face the Warriors in the first round they can’t hesitate — Hield has to take that shot.

The Kings are now 1.5 games behind the Clippers for the final playoff slot in the West, and LeBron and the Lakers are one game behind the Kings. It’s going to be a wild ride the rest of the way at the bottom of the West.

DeMar DeRozan expected to receive warm welcome in Toronto return

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TORONTO (AP) — From fellow athletes to star entertainers, DeMar DeRozan has seen plenty of celebrities soaking up an extended round of appreciative applause from fans.

“When they get that long standing ovation, I always thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” DeRozan said Thursday. “I’ve never received one.”

Friday night, it could be his turn.

DeRozan is back north of the border for the first time since the Toronto Raptors traded him last summer. His new team, the San Antonio Spurs, face the Raptors on Friday. A four-time All-Star in Toronto who helped the Raptors to five straight playoff appearances, DeRozan is likely to receive a warm welcome when he is introduced.

“If it’s one of those long standing ovations, it’s definitely going to be overwhelming,” DeRozan said in a news conference at the Spurs’ team hotel. “It’s crazy when you get a whole arena on their feet just showing appreciation. I’m looking forward to it, to feeling the love.”

Friday’s game will be the first following the All-Star break for both teams. Toronto (43-16) has won six straight, and is is one game behind Milwaukee for top spot in the Eastern Conference. San Antonio (33-26) beat Memphis in its final game before the break to stop a four-game slide. The Spurs are seventh in the West, nine games behind leaders Golden State.

There wasn’t much love on offer when the Raptors visited the Spurs in January. Toronto forward Kawhi Leonard endured chants of “Traitor! Traitor!” and “Quitter! Quitter!” from the capacity crowd that adored him during his seven seasons in San Antonio.

“It just felt like a road game, but more boos when I have the ball,” Leonard said after the Raptors practiced Thursday. “Environments like that can only get us better, being able to have the fans up in their seats excited, wanting the team to lose, it just prepares us for the playoffs.”

Leaving Toronto last summer was difficult for DeRozan. Still a teenager when he was drafted by Toronto in 2009, he turned into an All-Star by 2014, building his game year after year. He left town as the franchise leader in points (13,296), field goals (4,716), free throws (3,539), and games (675).

DeRozan compared the emotional wounds left by the end of his Raptors career to a breakup, albeit one with a happy ending.

“She moved on and I moved on,” he joked. “Now we’re both happy.”

Toronto coach Nick Nurse worked with DeRozan for five years in his role as a Raptors assistant, and called him “the best dude ever.”

“He was easy to coach,” Nurse said. “He was easy to talk to. And he was a great performer.”

DeRozan certainly performed when the Spurs routed the Raptors in January, recording 21 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists for his first career triple-double. It was the first home triple-double by a Spurs player since Tim Duncan in 2003.

The visit to Toronto also gives DeRozan the opportunity to compete against former teammate and friend Kyle Lowry, who missed the game in Texas because of a sore back.

“I’m looking forward to playing against him,” DeRozan said. “Kyle gave me a sense of a different side of understanding basketball. I learned so much from him being my point guard, being my best friend, just everything hat came with that.”

DeRozan said he misses plenty of things about Toronto, but not its winter weather. He conducted his news conference while wearing a furry aviator hat and said he planned to stay in for the night, joking that he hoped Lowry would bring him some food.

Friday’s game will also feature a matchup of the Gasol brothers, Pau, 38, with San Antonio and Marc, 34, with Toronto.

Watch Chris Paul put LeBron James in an armbar (VIDEO)

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Chris Paul and LeBron James are friends. Supposedly. But after this? I’m not so sure.

As the two battled for a rebound on Thursday night at Staples Center, the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets stars got tangled up. LeBron’s arm ended up between Paul’s, and the Houston point guard seemingly knowingly jerked down on James’ arm.

It was not a good look, and Twitter was noticeably upset about the apparent dirty play by Paul.

Via Twitter:

James was able to keep playing, scoring 29 points to go with 11 rebounds and six assists.

The Lakers beat the Rockets, 111-106, but before things were said and done both Paul and Houston coach Mike D’Antoni earned themselves technical fouls.

Things were testy during this game between these two teams. It made some sense for LA, who are trying to claw their way into the playoff picture, but not for the Rockets, who are a postseason guarantee at this point.

Who knows if this play will be discussed on the Banana Boat this summer?

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 30 points as Bucks beat Celtics 98-97

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MILWAUKEE (AP) Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 12 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, Khris Middleton hit a 3-pointer in the closing seconds and the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks held off the Boston Celtics 98-97 on Thursday night.

On the second-to-last position, Marcus Smart forced a jump ball with Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo tipped the jump to Brook Lopez, who deflected it toward the basket, but missed as the shot clock expired.

The referees huddled during the timeout and put 3.5 seconds on the clock for the Celtics.

Smart inbounded the ball over the towering Lopez and dropped a pass into Kyrie Irving‘s hands at the top of the key. With Eric Bledsoe draped all over him, Irving drove the lane, seemed to stumble and missed an awkward shot as time expired. The Bucks won the season series 2-1, their first over the Celtics since 2014-15.

For Antetokounmpo and Irving, who had 10 of his 22 points in the fourth, it was a rematch since squaring off Sunday at the All-Star Game. Antetokounmpo captained Team Giannis, while Irving started for Team LeBron.

Irving, who has battled a variety of injuries this season, used the All-Star Game to get ready for his return to action. He had missed the two previous games with a strained right knee and 11 overall.

Antetokounmpo added 13 rebounds, Middleton had 15 points and a season-high 13 rebounds, and Malcolm Brogdon had 15 points for the Bucks. They have won 15 of the last 17 games, including nine of the last 10, to improve to 44-14.

Horford added 21 points and a season-high 17 rebounds for Boston, and Jayson Tatum had 17 points and 10 rebounds.

TIP-INS

Celtics: F Gordon Hayward did not play after spraining his right ankle during a workout on Tuesday. … F/C Aron Baynes (left foot contusion) is sitting out the three-game trip.

Bucks: Mirotic made his Bucks’ debut at forward with three minutes left in the first quarter. He missed his first four games with a calf injury. … G Donte DiVincenzo (bilateral heel bursitis) did not play.

UP NEXT:

Celtics: At Chicago on Saturday night.

Bucks: Host Minnesota on Saturday night.

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