LeBron's choices: It seems like Miami now, but in this drama things change

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Thumbnail image for James_numberone.pngWe don’t know. We won’t really know until some time between 9 and 9:15 pm Eastern tonight.

What we have now is drama. Manufactured drama. And that makes every rumor suspect — if you were trying to create drama for a show like this, you’d leak different things to different people. You’d keep everybody guessing, wondering if it was Colonel Mustard with the candlestick or Professor Plum with the revolver. Miami or New York or Cleveland.

And so it is, a shifting sands of favorites. We don’t know and don’t trust much of what we hear anymore. We’ll be here tonight, live-blogging the end of act one of LeBron James NBA career and wondering what comes with act two. And if the setting changes. But we don’t really know.

Here is where things stand early Thursday morning.

The Miami Heat are your front-runners, and things seem to be solidifying for South Beach. Multiple reports have LeBron leaning strongly toward joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to form the best three-man unit on a team since Magic/Kareem/Worthy (or maybe Bird/McHale/Parish). To do this, they would each have to take about $1 million less a year, but they could do that and say it’s all about winning. Miami would be an interesting basketball experiment — three superstars surrounded by the underwhelming Michael Beasley and nine minimum salary guys (all Miami could then afford). Can that team really win a title?

The Cleveland Cavaliers are everybody’s number two. It’s his hometown, where his worshiped as one of their own, something no other elite athlete really has. And if has a one-hour national television show to rip out the collective heart of a city, that could have a public relations backlash. (Really, no matter what he chooses there will be a backlash, this is a hard public relations sell after tonight.) The Cavaliers had the best record in the East two years running and have most of that roster back, but can LeBron and new coach Byron Scott get them over the playoff hump?

The New York Knicks are another team whose name you keep hearing in rumors. If LeBron’s ego is such that he doesn’t want to just win but needs to do so in a spectacular fashion, to create a true legacy, New York is the place. This would be good for the league. The Knicks have a top power forward in Amare Stoudemire and a system with Mike D’Antoni that would have unstoppable force that is LeBron driving the lane getting the ball in more open court situations. He could put up incredible numbers, and keep an army of tabloid gossip columnists employed.

The Chicago Bulls have bought their way back into the LeBron sweepstakes by landing Carlos Boozer. Combined with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and LeBron, that team is an instant contender. It would be by far the best supporting cast James has ever had around him. It makes a lot of on-the-court basketball sense. But Chicago has never seemed the preferred destination by LeBron — there was a reason that Chicago went hard after Dwyane Wade, they felt LeBron was not coming there early on. But if it really was just about basketball and winning…

The New Jersey Nets and the pitch made by Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov impressed James, by all accounts. And this is a franchise that will be moving to Brooklyn in a couple years. But that’s the problem — it’s in a couple years. Everything about the Nets says “in a couple years.” They have a good young core that needs to develop. LeBron is not likely to wait for that.

The Los Angeles Clippers… we have to mention them. They met with him. This is a big market team that is right there with Chicago in having the best on-the-court unit to put around LeBron — Baron Davis, Chris Kaman, Blake Griffin, and rookie Al-Farouq Aminu. But would you trust the peak of your career to owner Donald T. Sterling?

That’s it. That’s where we stand. Right now. But check back in an hour or two for when the leader changes. Because if you’re going to create real drama, you need to have multiple viable contenders.

Spurs GM still optimistic relationship with Kawhi Leonard can be salvaged

Associated Press
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — General manager R.C. Buford acknowledges star forward Kawhi Leonard is unhappy with the Spurs.

He remains optimistic the relationship can be salvaged.

Leonard has requested a trade from San Antonio because he is unhappy after missing most of last season with a right quadriceps injury. Buford would not comment on “speculation” of a trade demand, but agreed there is a fractured relationship between Leonard and the only franchise he has played for.

“Kawhi and his family mean a lot to the organization and to the community and while none of wish we are where we are, we’re going to do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him,” Buford said Thursday night as the Spurs made two late picks in the NBA Draft. “We’ll explore all of our options, but the first one would be to do what we can to keep Kawhi as part of our group.”

Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season but returned to play in nine games. He complained of discomfort and pain in the leg in his final game. Leonard sought an outside opinion after the Spurs cleared him to play, working with his own medical team in New York in an attempt to return to the court. The 6-foot-7 forward reportedly grew upset that the Spurs had questioned his rehabilitation process.

The Spurs listed him as out on their injury reports for much of the year citing “injury management.” While San Antonio was in the playoffs, losing in the first round to eventual repeat champion Golden State, Leonard was rehabbing in New York – which meant that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, when asked for the situation, deferred all comment to “Kawhi and his group.”

“I think all of us would wish that things would have gone differently,” Buford said.

The Spurs held a team meeting late in the season where veterans, led by Tony Parker, implored Leonard to return. Leonard said he was unable to due to the injury.

In the 2016-17 season, Leonard averaged a career-best 25.5 points and was third in the MVP voting. The 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time NBA defensive player of the year is due just over $20 million next season, and can become a free agent in the summer of 2019. He is eligible to sign a $220 million extension with San Antonio.

He is reportedly willing to walk away from that to play elsewhere, possibly in Los Angeles.

“I don’t know that timing is a factor in this from today … he’s under contract for another year, our goal is to keep him as part of our program for a long time,” Buford said.

 

NBA Draft Winners, Losers: Big nights for Phoenix, Dallas

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Let’s start with the obvious — this whole story is a fool’s errand. It really takes about three years to accurately assess who are the winners and losers in the NBA draft. Guys we thought were locks will turn out to be pretty pedestrian, guys we wrote off as projects down the board will impress. In three years, we’ll have a real sense of which teams read this draft well and nailed it.

But we don’t live in that world.

So here are my projections on the real winners and losers Thursday night in Brooklyn, starting with the guys who didn’t screw up the No. 1 pick.

 

Suns small icon Winner: Phoenix Suns.

It isn’t just that they didn’t screw up the top pick and landed in DeAndre Ayton, the guy most likely to be a franchise cornerstone star in this class. Although they did that. Also, it was their move later to trade their pick at No. 16 (Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith) for Mikal Bridges — most likely the best “3&D” prospect in this draft (it cost them a future first via Miami). By the time everyone was trying to get an Uber outside Barclays Center the Suns had put together a starting lineup of Devin Booker, Bridges, Josh Jackson, and Ayton (plus a point guard to be named later). That’s a group worth watching — and they hired Igor Kokoskov as their new coach this summer because he’s strong on player development. It’s the start of something.

Phoenix also drafted French point guard Elie Okobo at 31 in the second round when a lot of teams thought of him as a first-round talent. Another smart move.

Loser: Michael Porter Jr.

A couple of weeks ago, Porter was mentioned as a potential No. 2 selection to the Kings. But after teams got a look at his medical reports from last Friday’s workout — remember, he missed all but three games at Missouri following back surgery — they backed off. Reports about his attitude didn’t help. Porter slid all the way down to Denver at 14. What that means to him besides getting to play at altitude in Denver: The No. 2 pick is slotted for a $7.3 million salary next season, the No. 14 makes less than $3 million. We’ll see if Porter can use this as motivation — and stay healthy.

One winner in this: The Denver Nuggets for grabbing him at 14. That is a good team (they just missed the playoffs) with strong players already where Porter can be brought along slowly without unreasonable expectations.

Mavericks small icon Winner: Dallas Mavericks.

Mark Cuban and company traded up from No. 5 to No. 3 and landed Luka Doncic — the player they had highest rated on the board. This is a win for the Mavs and for Doncic because he lands with a brilliant Xs and Os coach in Rick Carlisle who will put him in positions to succeed, plus Doncic gets mentored by Dirk Nowitzki. This pick also is a strong move because he should pair well with young point guard Dennis Smith Jr. — Doncic can run the pick-and-roll at times with Smith cutting and moving off the ball, and in the reverse Doncic has a good catch-and-shoot game. Dallas has options for playmaking now.

Also, nice second-round pickup of Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson. That’s a high IQ player who can step in as a reserve and help immediately.

Loser: Robert Williams.

The Texas A&M big man has the talent of a late lottery pick — the Clippers met with him a couple of times — but concerns about his attitude and work ethic saw him plummet all the way down the board to 27. Will he use this as motivation to play with a high motor all the time, or will he continue to coast? If he brings it, he could be the steal of this draft. That brings us to…

Celtics small iconWinner: Boston Celtics (because they got Robert Williams).

This was an Oceans 9 level robbery (that’s the next movie, right?) for Danny Ainge this late in the first round. At No. 27 you’re usually just hoping to get a guy who can develop into a role player in a few years. Williams is much more than that, he has the tools to be an elite NBA defender, and in college he was a defensive and rebounding force. In the NBA he’s going to be a rim running big, ala DeAndre Jordan — except Jordan fulfilled his potential. It’s up to Boston to get that out of Williams (and it’s up to Williams himself to work), but if they do this was another brilliant Ainge pick.

Loser: Golden State Warriors.

They tried to buy into the second round as they did a year ago and pick up someone who fits their style — and this year they had $5.1 million to do it (more than the $3.5 million a year ago). However, other GMs remember how much heat the Bulls front office took for selling their pick to Golden State last year and watching the Warriors draft Jordan Bell — Mr. “cash considerations” was playing a role in the NBA Finals. No GM wanted to repeat that mistake. No early second-round pick for the Warriors this year.

However, their first-round pick of Jacob Evans was a good one, he’s the kind of versatile wing player who fits into their rotation.

Winner: Puma.

The German soccer cleat maker shoe and apparel company wanted to get back into the basketball game, and the did it with a splash — their guys Ayton and Bagley went No. 1 and 2. That’s going to be a lot of free publicity and a lot of eyes on their players starting in Summer League and beyond. The company also landed guys with real potential in Michael Porter Jr. and Zhaire Smith.

Oh, and they hired Jay-Z as well. That’s a good week whatever else happens.

Winner: NBA Twitter

The guys in suits up the executive food chain tried to put an end to Woj bombs this year — ESPN was trying to clamp down on their news breakers Tweeting out the picks before they happened (as had been the case for a few years, with Twitter often two or three picks ahead of Adam Silver and the broadcast). Other major news breakers (such as Yahoo’s Shams Charania) agreed to play along. We all thought we would have to wait around for Adam Silver to saunter up to the table.

But if there is one thing NBA Twitter has taught us it’s that it will not be contained. It breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously. NBA Twitter, uh… finds a way.

Before long Twitter picks were leaking and Twitter was a pick ahead of the broadcast again, and Adrian Wojnarowski was dropping bombs, cleverly not saying who the pick was but….

NBA Twitter is the best.

Lonnie Walker’s Spurs hat appears as if it’s floating above his head (photo)

AP Photo/Kevin Hagen
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Basketball players don’t wear hats.

White Men Can't Jump (1992)

OK, scratch that. NBA players don’t wear hats.

But it has become tradition for draft picks to don a cap of the team that selected him.

So, even though Lonnie Walker‘s hair looks like this (via AP):

Pittsburgh Miami Basketball

…he put on a Spurs hat when they selected him No. 18:

NBA Draft Basketball

Even Elfrid Payton did a much better job cramming his do into his hat on draft night:

Walker, an athletic shooting guard who underperformed at Miami, was a surprising choice by San Antonio. The Spurs generally prioritize basketball intelligence over athleticism (though, to be fair, that’s hardly an absolute).

But no matter how Walker fits in San Antonio goes, it probably won’t be more awkward than this.

Report: 76ers trade Mikal Bridges to Suns for Zhaire Smith, future first-rounder

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Update: Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated:

Again, that is a ton to give up to move up six spots.

 

The 76ers drafting Mikal Bridges No. 10 was a dream come true. He was born in Philadelphia and grew up rooting for the 76ers. He stayed home for college, playing at Villanova. His mom even worked for the 76ers, and she was PUMPED when Adam Silver announced the selection tonight.

But the NBA is cruel.

Philadelphia has already traded Bridges – to the Suns for No. 16 pick Zhaire Smith and a future first-rounder.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

That 2021 Heat pick was unprotected for the Suns and potentially quite valuable. It’s always difficult to forecast that far into the future, but Miami – with an expensive and not-young roster – could drop considerably by then.

Did Phoenix add protections to the selection before flipping it? If not, that is a huge price to move up six spots, and I say that as someone who likes Bridges a lot. DeAndre Ayton and Bridges comprise a heck of a haul for the Suns, who are adding talent around Devin Booker.

But there are complications. Josh Jackson isn’t good enough to stress over, but he and Bridges could be a strange fit. Can either natural small forward play up or down a position?

And that Heat pick looms large. It’s reminiscent of Phoenix trading a future Lakers pick – which, incidentally, became Bridges – for Brandon Knight. That backfired. Perhaps, this works better.

Smith is a solid prospect, but maybe a strange fit in Philadelphia. He has big-man skills in a guard’s body. There’s nothing wrong with betting on the hard worker and athletic marvel developing, but he must to fit with Ben Simmons. Otherwise, the 76ers won’t have enough shooting.

Bridges was an easier fit, but apparently Philadelphia preferred Smith and the extra asset.