LeBron James: The Golden Boy No More

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LeBron James came into this league as the most hyped prospect in the history of the NBA. The first three years of his career were little more than a prolonged honeymoon, an open celebration of how good LeBron already was and how good he would someday become. 
The next two years of LeBron’s career were nearly as joyous; by his early 20s, LeBron had already inserted himself into the “best player alive” discussion, and his teams had a puncher’s chance at the NBA Championship. LeBron’s game was still raw in some areas, and Cleveland came up short in the playoffs, but LeBron was still so young.
It was supposed to be just a matter of time until he got the supporting cast that he needed, that he evolved his game to the point where LeBron and his team would become unstoppable. His dominance was always just around the corner, and it was hard not to get excited about it. 
In the 2008-09 season, it looked like LeBron had arrived in all his glory. His supporting cast was upgraded and he evolved his game to the highest possible level. His team had the best record in the NBA, and LeBron strolled to his first MVP award. His coronation seemed moments away, but Dwight Howard and some huge threes from Rashard Lewis kept the Cavs out of the finals, despite an incredible individual series from LeBron. 
It was disappointing, but it was supposed to be a temporary setback. The Cavs added a veteran frontline built to handle Howard and Lewis, James somehow turned in a better regular-season campaign than he had in 08-09, and it was finally time for LeBron James to win his first year in the last year of his contract. 
Obviously, that wasn’t what happened, and all of a sudden there was no getting around the truth: LeBron James had failed. He had all the tools to win a championship at his disposal, and he ended up failing miserably. LeBron James was supposed to be the next golden boy of the NBA. He will never be that player, and that would have been true regardless of what team LeBron decided to go to. LeBron James, Golden Boy died the moment LeBron lost to the Celtics in this year’s playoffs. The decision LeBron made on Thursday night was nothing more than LeBron’s acknowledgement of that reality. 
For the first seven years of his career, LeBron James desperately wanted to be all things to all people. He wanted to be the hometown kid who loved his town, loved his mom, but could still be a global icon. He wanted to be a team-first player while also establishing himself as a dominant individual force. He wanted to be a goofy kid and the NBA’s big man on campus. After he failed to deliver a championship, his all-encompassing persona didn’t work for anybody anymore. You can’t please everybody all the time, especially if you don’t have a championship. Somewhere along the line, LeBron realized that. 
LeBron James will never become the undisputed darling of the NBA, the way so many thought he would someday become. LeBron never had much of a cult of personality — a quick look around message boards, LeBron’s FaceBook page, or any comment section will reveal that LeBron is now flat-out reviled by the vast majority of serious NBA fans. 
He will never experience the pure joy of bringing his hometown its first championship in a major sport since 1964. If he does win a championship, or even several championships, some people will always remember that he needed Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to get him one. He might win, but it won’t trigger the kind of mass celebration that it would have before. If he wins now, it will have been on his own terms. 
History, especially in the world of sports, is the propaganda of the victors. LeBron said all the right things after he came into the NBA. He played at an incredibly high level for seven regular seasons, and won the last two MVP awards easily. He stayed in his hometown and tried to bring the Cavaliers a championship. He was effective, exciting, creative, and explosive on the court. When he failed to win championships, none of that mattered. He was a failure, and all his previous achievements just gave him a higher pedestal to fall from. 
Trying to do things the right way and losing didn’t work out for LeBron. Now he’s going to take a crack at doing things the wrong way and giving himself a better chance to win a championship. After the Eagle Rock incident and Shaq’s departure, Kobe Bryant didn’t try and be the golden boy he was when he was younger. He starred in a “Love Me or Hate Me” ad campaign. He embraced his inner ruthlessness on the court. 
Kobe didn’t mind being disliked, so long as he wasn’t disrespected. He didn’t try to force his way back into anyone’s good graces.  He just played his game, waited his turn, and eventually got a great supporting cast and two more rings. Today, Kobe Bryant is more respected and beloved than he ever has been before. He still has his detractors, but one gets the feeling he doesn’t care much about them. 
On Thursday, LeBron James took a major step towards embracing his own ruthlessness. He did it during a ridiculous ESPN special while cracking jokes with Jim Gray, thanking his Mom, and donating money to charity, but the message stayed the same: Love Me or Hate Me, my friends and I are going to try and take over this league. 

LeBron James has left his hometown, and did it during a one-hour television special celebrating his move to greener pastures. He is trying to take the easy way to a championship. He’s given up his hometown and his undisputed alpha dog status in order to give himself an easier path to the rings he was supposedly destined to earned. He is a quitter. He is an egomaniac. He is every bad thing that you want him to be. 
The thing is, LeBron James knows that none of that will matter if he becomes in Miami what he never became in Cleveland: a Champion. He doesn’t care about doing it the right way anymore. He just wants to get it done, and let the opinions fall where they may. LeBron James is no longer interested in winning your approval. He knows that if he wins championships, the fans will come to him, no matter what they’re saying about him now. Of course, if LeBron doesn’t win a championship with his new superteam, the backlash he’s feeling now will seem like nothing at all. LeBron had better get to work now, because he’s cast aside whatever safety net he had left under him. 

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

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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

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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.