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.

Glen Taylor says Tom Thibodeau’s job isn’t in danger

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Jimmy Butler is a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, at least until the team finds a suitable trade partner. It seems the talks between the Wolves and the Miami Heat have gone dormant, and there isn’t an openly-interested party in sight.

Meanwhile, Butler is attending practices and is expected to play in the first game of the year for Minnesota against the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday. As the team looks for trade partners, the question remains what will happen with head coach Tom Thibodeau. Things have quickly gone south under his watch, and many are calling for his firing from the outside.

In a conversation with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which Taylor owns, Taylor said that Thibodeau’s job is safe.

Via Star-Tribune:

Thibodeau has three years left on a five-year contract worth about $40 million. Is he coaching for his job?

“No, no, the only thing now is that we are starting to play games and I am asking him to concentrate on coaching,” Taylor said. “GM Scott Layden will help to see if any trades are available.”

Is Taylor still happy he hired Thibodeau in April 2016?

“Yes, yes, he is a good coach and I have faith in him,” he said.

Meanwhile Taylor says that he’s not thinking about selling the team, and that they will try to grit themselves through from here on out.

It’s a tougher Western Conference this year, and it was already up in the air whether the Timberwolves were going to be a playoff team. Now, it seems as though they are destined to miss the postseason yet again after making it last year.

Three Things to Know: Jayson Tatum is a star. Markelle Fultz…

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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. It’s good to have real basketball back — let’s get to it.

1) Kyrie who? Jayson Tatum is the star Boston was waiting for on opening night. So… anyone still want to argue Danny Ainge didn’t own the Sixers when he traded away the No. 1 pick to move back two spots and get Jayson Tatum?

Boston had stumbled its way through the preseason (to put it kindly) and the main issue then followed the team into the regular season: Adding Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back into the lineup was not going to be simple plug-and-play. Irving missed his first eight shots and ended the night 2-of-14 from the floor. Hayward was 4-of-12 and it’s clear he still lacks explosion on his first step. Those two will be fine, eventually, but there is a lot of work to do.

What the Celtics have is depth. And Jayson Tatum.

Tatum picked up right where he left off in last season’s playoffs dropping 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting, and showing off his improved handles. Just ask Joel Embiid.

Boston leaned on Tatum (28.6 percent usage rate, higher than he ever had playing with Irving last year) and the fact they were willing to go to him is a good sign. Not only will the Celtics need Tatum while Irving and Hayward settle back in, but if Boston really is going to be a threat to Golden State they will need him to be elite.

It wasn’t just Tatum that was working in Boston. Marcus Morris had 16 points off the bench, and Terry Rozier was fantastic with 11 points and a +22. Al Horford is not Boston’s best player but he is their most important — he played great defense in the paint with five blocks, scored nine points, and just did whatever needed to be done to get the win. He is the glue that makes the whole thing work.

Don’t read much into Game 1 of 82, but for Celtics fans this was the kind of win that can fuel very big dreams.

2) Can the Sixers just blame everything on the China trip? Off-the-record (and occasionally on it), every team that does the NBA’s annual preseason trip to China complains when they get back about how it throws them off for weeks into the regular season. The Warriors felt that way last season, but I’ve had that conversation with a lot of teams who have made that trip. NBA owners love the idea of going (and expanding their franchise brand in that massive market) until they do it once and see the impact on their team when the games matter.

It would be nice to blame the Sixers struggles opening night on that.. but their problems against the Celtics were bigger than frequent flier miles in the preseason.

It starts with Markelle Fultz — his jumper is simply not a threat, defenders are backing off of him because of it, and Fultz is not yet confident attacking into that space. What that leads to is a clogged halfcourt offense. This isn’t a new concern, a lot of people (myself included) wondered before the season how the Sixers starting lineup would work having Fultz, Ben Simmons (not a jump shooter) and Joel Embiid (he can hit threes but needs to be in the paint primarily) on the court together. We saw it a lot in the first half — it was tough to make post entry passes to Embiid because defenders backed off Simmons and Fultz and took away the pass, daring them to shoot.

Fultz, Embiid, and Simmons were on the court for 14.3 minutes in this game and during that time the Sixers shot 38.7 percent overall and 18.2 percent from three. To be fair, they were +1 as a team in those minutes, but the offense struggled. It’s just one game, but Fultz showed that while he has made strides in improving his jumper, he’s not yet back to where he was.

The Sixers need another shot creator off the dribble besides Simmons and the underrated T.J. McConnell. By the fourth quarter Tuesday it seemed Landry Shamet was getting minutes that could have gone to Fultz — and he should have. Shamet played well.

It’s a long season and what matters is where Fultz is come March and April, not October. That’s a long time from now, but he has a long way to go.

3) Dennis Schroder may be what Oklahoma City needs off the bench. Schroder, in his first game for the Thunder (after five seasons in Atlanta), was thrust into the starting lineup Tuesday night because Russell Westbrook isn’t yet cleared after having his knee scoped in the offseason. In that starting role, Schroder was up and down — defensively he was asked to track Stephen Curry at times and Steph dropped 32 on the night.

But offensively, once he is coming off the bench with the second unit, this may be a fantastic fit. Schroder finished with 21 points (on 19 shots) and had nine assists on opening night, showing his value as a shot creator.

Things were not perfect — he shot 4-of-12 from the midrange, which is both a low percentage and too many shots from there — but the potential is there. He was hitting spot-up looks and played defense at times.

Westbrook will be back soon (possibly even Friday against the Clippers in Los Angeles) and when he is Schroder goes to the bench. If he accepts that role and creates shots the same way with the second unit (and just shoots a little better, something that will come, he had a solid 51.5 true shooting percentage last year) he could be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate leading that unit.

Warriors get rings, still have Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and that’s too much for OKC

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For Oklahoma City, this game was encouraging. Paul George had 27 points and five assists, pushing the Thunder in the second half, but that was almost expected with Russell Westbrook out (still recovering from off-season knee surgery). What was more encouraging was Dennis Schroder‘s 21 points, 9 rebounds, and six assists, he is going to be a valuable shot creator for this team off the bench. It was encouraging to see Steven Adams looking solid with 17 points and 11 boards. It was encouraging to see a couple of threes from Alex Abrines off the bench. The Thunder put up a fight.

However, there are no moral victories.

The Warriors won on opening night in Oakland and it didn’t even feel like they had to break a sweat.

Stephen Curry dropped 32 points, reminded everyone he is a master of getting space for his shot off the pick-and-roll, and he hit five threes. Kevin Durant had 27 points and was the guy who took on the defensive responsibility for George much of the night (and did an okay job, but struggled following him on off-ball picks). And the new center combination of Damian Jones (12 points on 6-of-7 shooting, three blocked shots) and Kevon Looney (10 points, good game on both ends and was +22) held down the center spot reasonably well.

It was a good night for the Warriors. First they got their championship rings.

Then started out the season with a 108-100 win.

The one concern for the Warriors was Andre Iguodala leaving the game in the second quarter with what was described as a tight left calf, and he did not return.

Mostly though, the Warriors won this game the way they will win a lot more this season — because they have more talent than the team they are playing and can overwhelm them. Klay Thompson was cold (1-of-8 from three, but it doesn’t matter if one of the scorers goes cold because another one will step up. That was Curry.

The game was a bit sloppy, as first games of the season tend to be. But for both teams, there were good takeaways, positives they can build on as they go through the remaining 81 games.

It’s just the Warriors have a lot more talent on the roster, so they start 1-0.

Future of Paul Allen’s sports holdings, including Blazers, remains unclear

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RENTON, Wash. (AP) — Paul Allen’s love was basketball and he delved into professional football out of loyalty to his hometown Seattle.

In the wake of his death, Allen’s ownership of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and NFL’s Seattle Seahawks has come into focus because of questions about how the franchises will move forward in his absence.

No one is providing many details yet about the succession plans for Allen’s franchise holdings in the wake of his death Monday from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His primary franchises were the Blazers and Seahawks, although he also owned a small stake in Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders.

“Paul thoughtfully addressed how the many institutions he founded and supported would continue after he was no longer able to lead them. This isn’t the time to deal in those specifics as we focus on Paul’s family,” according to a statement from Allen’s company, Vulcan Inc. “We will continue to work on furthering Paul’s mission and the projects he entrusted to us. There are no changes imminent for Vulcan, the teams, the research institutes or museums.”

For now, Allen’s teams will continue to be overseen by Vulcan Sports and Entertainment, an arm of the company he created. His sister, Jody Allen, and executive Bert Kolde were the other members of the Seahawks’ board of directors with Allen. Jody Allen may take a more prominent role with the NFL franchise going forward.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s time to be engaging in that conversation. We’re more into the conversation about recognizing what took place and how to respect Paul and his desires and all of that,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Tuesday. “There’s plenty of time to talk about all that stuff. It’s not even a factor in our minds. I understand the interest but there will be plenty of time.

“Nothing is changing. Paul wouldn’t want us to do anything different than what we’re doing, which is to go for it and to represent it every way we can until you can’t. And we’re going to go for it just in that fashion.”

A similar message was being relayed in Portland, where Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey and Vulcan Sports and Entertainment CEO Chris McGowan spoke about Allen. The Trail Blazers are dealing with the death of Allen just a couple of days before beginning the regular season at home against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

“At this point we’re just dealing with the death and we don’t have any imminent announcements,” McGowan said. “At an appropriate time I’m sure we’ll come and talk with everyone about what potentially could happen but right now we’re just dealing with the grief.”

Olshey said his final phone conversation with Allen was in early October with the owner asking if the Blazers GM was watching that night’s preseason games.

“He wanted to talk basketball,” Olshey said. “One of the things that is really unique about Paul is that everything was bifurcated. … If he wanted to talk hoops, he talked hoops. If he wanted to talk music, he called Mick Jagger. If he wanted to talk football, he called Pete Carroll. Who else gets that?”