LeBron James decides to become the ultimate facilitator

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Thumbnail image for James_dunk.jpgScottie Pippen has six championship rings. He’s a seven time NBA All-Star. He was an NBA All-Star Game MVP in 1994, a 3-time NBA First-Team All-NBA selection, and an 8 time NBA All-Defensive team selection. He is considered one of the greatest players in NBA history and a legend in the truest sense for being the ultimate support player to the greatest of all time.

And today, his name is being tossed around as an insult.

When LeBron James elected to head to Miami to join Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to form a combination of talent rarely seen in the salary-cap age, the backlash was swift and brutal. As our own John Krolik laid out, James now faces a backlash, a change to his persona and his identity that seemed impossible three years ago. Those changes are the result of a decision to leave Cleveland, to deliver what can only be considered Brutus’ dagger to the heart of Ohio as he traipses off to South Beach.

But beyond the damage wreaked by what he didn’t do (re-sign), we have to look at the criticism he now faces for what he did do (take less money to play with his friends on an undeniable contender).

James’ decision brought about a rash of comparisons to, who else, Michel Jordan. The ghost that hangs over every great player in this league cast its shadow over LeBron tonight because Jordan would never defer to another superstar. He would never openly admit that he needed help. No, instead Jordan would rise up and take the team on his back, carrying them across the sky and into the sun, stealing its light to bring back and light his bedroom to read by. He would vanquish the Jabberwocky with his ballpoint pen that he signs his lucrative checks with and would never take a step out of the spotlight so he could share it with someone else.

Jordan. The crown that gives us scoliosis.

What James has done, outside of the Cleveland context and the ridiculousness of the television special, is agree to take a paycut so that he can contribute to a better team. To a team with talent so rarely combined that it’s difficult to find examples of comparable squads even in eras without the salary cap that’s currently giving the Heat organization a noose they’re trying to unwrap themselves from.

James is taking over a role that’s been suggested by better and worse writers. The Sports Guy himself commented that perhaps James was never meant to be “The Man” but instead the “uber-Pippen.” That he’s not wired that way. But does anyone doubt James’ ability to score? To take the ball to the hole in a close game and create points? Does anyone think he can’t come out and score 40 no matter who’s next to him?

But all of that is part of the same process everyone is going through. Taking the hamburger and dissecting it based on the pickles, the mayo, the burger, the bun. It’s not taking a look at how the burger looks together. Basketball isn’t a series of set moves one after another. It’s a movement. One, big, long movement in concert with the other players on the floor.

What’s a greater accomplishment, then? Forcing your game into some sort of pre-conceived notion of what you’re supposed to be (a high-usage jump shot machine), or adapting your game to make the best players in the world even better, and in return, feeding off that synergy to make your game better.

James is a natural passer. He always has been, and no one’s known what to make of it. Point guards pass. Centers pass out of the double. But a forward, with that size, with the vision of a point guard, the touch of a center and the speed of a wing, whipping passes flawlessly, it was something we hadn’t seen. We’ve grown accustomed to it, and we honestly haven’t seen its full potential. With Wade and Bosh catching his passes, maybe we’ll see more of it.

He’s a tremendous rebounder, able to out-soar the most athletic players in the league to capture a needed board. He draws fouls consistently. He chases down blocks, converting easy fastbreak opportunities into conversions for his team. He literally transforms easy opponent possessions into quality scoring plays for his team.

All of this without his jumpshot, the range, the ability to finish at the rim. James brings these auxiliary skills to a team that can take full advantage of them, without wasting them. He can be the kind of facilitator that is the difference for teams, without sacrificing defense, or offense, or anything. He can make the team play better basketball. What’s the importance of being an “alpha dog” in that scenario?

Wade certainly provides him said “alpha dog.” Wade has always held a more obsessive need to win, a more driving sense of the killshot. Wade is simply meaner. Of the three players in this new triumvirate, Wade is the most serious, the most obsessed, the most driven.

So maybe it’s true that James is surrendering his “alpha dog” status to Wade’s game. But marketing? Leadership? Playmaking? James is king of the roost in that regard. And now begins an era where the three can accomplish something never before seen in the NBA, a synergy and drive between the absolute best players in the NBA all on one team.

And if he walks away with the same kind of bounty that Scottie Pippen did at the end of the day, only with more a of a direct role, that’s not a bad comedown. People will say his legacy is tarnished by needing “help.” That his legend will be altered. If successful, he’ll simply have to console himself with multiple rings, the very thing most players would kill for.

Tonight was the beginning of one of the toughest periods in LeBron James’ life, as well as the most exciting and most lucrative. He’s going to become more of a facilitator. He’s going to become less of an alpha dog. And he’s going to become a better basketball player.

Somehow, it’s hard to see how James loses in this scenario.

Report: After working out Darius Garland, Knicks set on R.J. Barrett with No. 3 pick

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R.J. Barrett is the consensus No. 3 prospect in this draft. The Knicks have the No. 3 pick.

A potential snag  – New York working out Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland today – apparently won’t keep Barrett from his desired Knicks.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The top of the draft looks clear:

1. Pelicans: Zion Williamson

2. Grizzlies: Ja Morant

3. Knicks: R.J. Barrett

New Orleans has the No. 4 pick but is looking into trading it. I rate Garland as the top available prospect, but the Pelicans already have Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday in the backcourt. They could still take Garland, but the fit would be tricky.

Will New Orleans pick Garland? Take someone else? Trade the pick?

The draft will get interesting at No. 4.

Trade who? Wizards reportedly will offer Bradley Beal three-year, $111 million contract extension

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Predicting what the Wizards will do this off-season — from the No. 9 pick in the draft on Thursday through what to do with Jabari Parker‘s $20 million team option — is difficult because they do not have a permanent general manager. The Wizards have made a run at Toronto’s Masai Ujiri (something sources told me is true despite owner Ted Leonsis’ denials), but for now in-house candidate Tommy Sheppard is running the show (and will for a while longer).

The biggest question: What will the Wizards do with Bradley Beal?

While every team in the league has called to try and feel out trade possibilities, the Wizards are leaning toward offering him a three-year, $111 million extension to his current contract, something reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

“He’s eligible for a three-year, $111 million extension. I’m told it’s the team’s intention to offer that up to him and try and move forward.”

The Wizards should offer it up.

It would be a surprise if Beal accepted it.

In part because he will want to see who is in charge and what direction this person takes the franchise before he commits to it, but also in part because it doesn’t hurt him financially. Beal can get a larger-year four-year extension in the summer of 2020, or become a free agent and sign a max five-year contract in 2021 (or, he could bolt them to another team that summer). Beal is just 25 years old and has not had the kind of injury issues that would make him think he needs to take the security now (he has played 82 games the last two seasons).

This little dance will go on in our nation’s capital, but it signifies nothing. Meanwhile, Beal will gear up for next season, another without John Wall where Beal will once again be the focal point of the office.

Mavericks reportedly front runners to land Al Horford, Lakers and Clippers also interested

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Al Horford is moving on from Boston, the latest blow in a year where the Celtics went from “they will be in the Eastern Conference Finals every year for the next five years at least” to “they’re okay but have a lot of work to do.” It’s been a perfect storm of things gone wrong.

So where does Al Horford play next season?

How about next to Kristaps Porzingis in Dallas?

That’s the buzz, with the two Los Angeles teams trying to get in the conversation, according to Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer.

The Mavericks are considered favorites to land Celtics free-agent big man Al Horford, according to league sources, and the two Los Angeles teams are said to also have interest, though they both have their sights set on bigger fish like Kawhi Leonard.

Dallas makes sense for both sides.

The Mavericks have the cap space to offer Horford the $20 million or more starting salary he wants, reportedly he seeks $100 million across four years (he opted out of a $30.5 million season in Boston for the security of more years). Dallas has $31.3 million in cap space, even after Dwight Powell opting in. While they likely will reach a max deal on a new contract with Porzingis, the Mavs have his bird rights so they can sign Horford then go over the cap to re-sign Porzingis (who missed all of last season recovering from an ACL injury).

On the court, Horford can both be paired with Porzingis — two bigs teams have to defend out to the three-point line — and help limit the young big man’s minutes. While not young at 33 (and the Mavs may regret the final year of a four-year contract), Horford is the kind of glue big man who can do everything well, giving coach Rick Carlisle a lot of options. Horford can score in the post, shot 36 percent from three, sets good screens, is a good man defender and can protect the rim, and all that versatility makes him valuable. He can fit into the Dallas frontcourt rotation with Porzingis, Dwight Powell, and Maxi Kleber.

That versatility would make him a great second addition to the Clippers if Kawhi Leonard chooses to leave the Raptors to join Doc Rivers’ squad (he Leonard stays the Clippers are out of this running). While Los Angeles start Ivica Zubac at the five, Horford would be an upgrade and they still have Montrezl Harrell off the bench. Horford also could mix in at the four for the Clippers.

For the Lakers, who are looking for a third star, they could sigh Horford at a $20 million starting salary (with raises from there) without having to go through the salary cap gymnastics it would take for them to clear cap space to land someone like Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker.

Horford has fans all over the league and will have options, but Dallas is aggressive and there is a logical fit there.

Ted Leonsis denies making overture to Raptors’ Masai Ujiri to run Wizards

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The NBA offseason is a time for rumors and official denials. The Washington Wizards were reportedly going after Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri to run the franchise. The reported talks with Ujiri centered around a role that could have expanded his influence beyond the Wizards. Monumental Sports owns the Washington Capitals and Mystics in addition to the NBA franchise.

Now Wizards owner Ted Leonsis is denying that they have pursued the Raptors president. Speaking to the Washington Post this week, Leonsis said that they will not name a new president until after the 2019 NBA draft on Thursday. That seems like an odd decision given that the draft is one of three ways NBA teams can get better, and likely is the only way the Wizards will be able to improve their roster thanks to the cap hell they find themselves in due to John Wall‘s massive super max contract.

Via the Washington Post:

On Tuesday, Leonsis released a statement to The Washington Post in which he shared the plan to take his time in forming the franchise’s new leadership team. Leonsis also denied reports that the Wizards pursued Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri, who constructed the roster that last week won the NBA Finals.

Tommy Sheppard, who has led the Wizards’ basketball operations on an interim basis for the past 11 weeks, will continue in the role through Thursday’s NBA draft and the start of free agency, which arrives June 30.

“I am very happy with the work and preparation Tommy Sheppard, Coach [Scott] Brooks and our staff have done and I’m confident we’ll execute both the draft and free agency in an expert manner,” Leonsis said in a statement. “Having that confidence has given me the freedom to continue the conversations I’ve been having on how to build a great organization and, as a result, I don’t expect to make any decisions before the start of free agency.”

This comes with information from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that the Raptors would require significant compensation to allow Ujiri to walk to another NBA team.

Ujiri is still under contract with Toronto.

Via The Hoop Collective:

“I have heard there’s been at least some communication between the franchises and Toronto has expressed that if they’re going to give up Masai Ujiri, they would like to have significant compensation.”

Ujiri took a big risk to land Kawhi Leonard and it worked out. The former San Antonio Spurs small forward is now trying to decide where he wants to go this offseason as well, with reports saying he is still strongly considering the Los Angeles Clippers.

Marc Stein mentioned in his most recent newsletter that Leonard could also sign a 1+1 deal that gives him a $33 million payout for this upcoming season and an option for the next.

In short, everything is up in the air and nobody has gone anywhere… yet. The NBA offseason is already wild with July still some weeks away. Strap yourself in, it’s only going to get weirder from here.