Is LeBron’s new commercial the right move?

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The latest Nike/Weiden and Kennedy/LeBron ad was widely considered a triumph, and I’ll admit that there’s a lot about it that can be admired. It deals with the elephant in the room, and it strikes a decent balance between self-deprecation and self-pity. It’s funny and honest, the “what should I do” line functions as an earnest plea and a defiant statement, and the Charles Barkley bit is all but perfect.

That said, I still don’t think the ad was the right way to begin LeBron’s “rehabilitation.” As well-done as the ad was, it was still a return to an event that LeBron will have to someday put behind him. Every time we talk about LeBron James, architect of “The Decision,” former son of Ohio, and official Controversial Person instead of LeBron James, the basketball player and reigning two-time MVP, his brand takes another hit.

As Don Draper would say: if you don’t like what they’re saying about you, change the conversation. There are probably millions of people nicer or humbler than LeBron James. Only a handful of people have ever played basketball at the level LeBron is capable of playing it at. That will always be what’s really important about LeBron, and the sooner LeBron people reminds people of that, the better.

Like Crash Davis told Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham, it really does always come down to performance: win 20 games in the show, having fungus on your shower sandals is quirky. Until you do that, it’s just gross. When a player exceeds the expectations people have of him, his quirks or lack of quirks are praised. When he fails to meet them, they’re attacked. Players who win because they have “quiet confidence,” led by example, or are exceedingly humble lose because they were too passive, or scared of the big moment. Players who won because they were “vocal leaders,” had “swagger,” or elevated their team’s level of play with the force of their personality lose because they lacked focus, or didn’t take the game seriously enough. Sports fans are willing to cut endless amounts of slack to athletes who perform, and have no love for those who don’t. That’s how it is, and yet we continue to pretend otherwise.

If you want to see an example of what I’m talking about w/r/t “changing the conversation,” check out this Weiden and Kennedy production from 2006 (and yes, I realize I’m far from the only person to connect these two ads).

A few points:

1. That ad came out in February of 2006, which was a fair amount of time after Kobe was accused of sexual assault and Shaq may or may not have left town because Kobe told the Laker front office that he wouldn’t re-sign with the team unless Shaq was traded first. (Before people start yelling, remember that a lot of people actually resented Kobe for the latter alleged deed more than they resented him for the former one, and almost everyone believed that Kobe had a lot to do with Shaq leaving. There’s been some revisionist history on this, but at the time Phil Jackson had a book out saying that Kobe made the Lakers choose between trading Shaq and losing him in free agency. A lot of people believed this.)

2. Remember that both of Kobe’s (possible) transgressions happened behind closed doors — nobody really knows what happened in that hotel room, and very few people really know why Shaq had to leave town. Everyone knows exactly what happened with “The Decision,” because, you know, it was on television. It’s a lot easier to forgive something we never actually saw happen in the first place. (Counter-point to this: Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson both found success and cults of personality after the Palace Brawl, and there was very little ambiguity about what happened there. Again, play well for a team that exceeds expectations and things tend to work themselves out.)

3. Again, look at how that ad changes the conversation. This ad came out when Kobe was scoring around 35 points a game for a middling playoff contender and people were wondering whether his biggest problem was ball-hogging, and Nike ran with that as fast as they could and set up that narrative. The commercial makes the conversation about basketball — there’s no option for “I really like your game on every conceivable level, and think your style of play is the right fit for your team as it currently stands, but remain uneasy about exactly what happened in Colorado and think you had a significant role in making Shaq leave town.” Love my game, hate my game. Kobe’s back on the top of the hill now, and while that ad wasn’t as significant as, say, the Gasol trade, it was a heck of a first step.

It’s very hard for us to admit that we were wrong about somebody. It’s very easy for us to believe that somebody changed. At this point, I don’t think fans would forgive “The Decision” if it was revealed that the only way a nuclear way could be prevented was for Jim Gray to be somehow involved in LeBron’s free agency decision. But if LeBron gives us something, anything different to go on and wins a championship with the Heat, we’ll fall over ourselves to talk about the “New LeBron” — heck, LeBron 2.0 could pick up momentum if the heat start the season 20-4 and LeBron makes lots of serious faces. If LeBron moves forward, he’ll be fine as long as he doesn’t come up short again on the court. But if he keeps going back to “The Decision” for forgiveness, understanding, or simply to have his apology accepted, his reputation is just going to continue to take a beating.

Warriors’ reportedly showing no urgency to trade D’Angelo Russell

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It’s been the same story since Golden State did a sign-and-trade with Brooklyn last summer that brought them back D'Angelo Russell on a new max contract.

Around the league, executives with other teams expect the Warriors to trade Russell, questioning how he fits long-term with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Golden State itself, however, has pushed back on the idea it just got Russell to trade him and they want to see if a three-guard rotation can work.

Come Dec. 15, Russell — and most players signed this summer — become eligible to be traded. The Warriors still appear to be in no rush, reports Sean Deveney of Heavy.com.

“If it is something that they’re going to do quickly, like before the end of this month, I wouldn’t say they’re pushing for it,” one general manager said. “Maybe they have a deal in mind, maybe they’re sitting on something and laying low. But I’d be surprised. That’s not how they’d approach it, I’d think. You want to create a market if you are going to trade a player like him, you want to pit teams against each other, drive up the price. You don’t want to lock into one deal. But the market thing, that’s not really happening yet. They’re not pushing the market for him.”

What is the motivation for Golden State to move Russell now, or at the February trade deadline, as opposed to next June around the draft? Or next July? There isn’t, unless some team approaches them with a Godfather offer. This season is a lost cause for the Warriors, and next season they are going to be looking for veterans to help them win now more than rookies to develop.

Russell has averaged 22.3 points a game and played well when healthy, but he has missed half of the Warriors games so far this season due to injury. That’s not exactly boosting Russell’s trade value, another reason to be patient.

Maybe the Russell trade drama ramps up after the season ends, but for now the Warriors continue to play it cool.

People with power within Knicks reportedly “obsessed” with Masai Ujiri

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In the latest sign of dysfunction in New York, Knicks president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry didn’t show their face and talk to the media Saturday about the firing of coach David Fizdale. Instead, they sent interim head coach Mike Miller to a podium, by himself, to talk about the situation. It was awkward. It’s also not how well-run organizations handle things.

Mills and Perry are on the hot seat — and they should be. This 4-19 Knicks season is more on them and how this roster was built than Fizdale (who was not blameless in all this).

There have been rumors owner James Dolan may go after Raptors president Masai Ujiri to take over Knicks, and that is growing into an “obsession” with influential people, reports Ian Begley of SNY.tv.

Will the Knicks have a shot at landing Ujiri? That’s unclear. But once the Knicks started struggling last month, multiple Madison Square Garden people in positions of influence have been ‘obsessed’ with – and ‘enamored’ by – the Raptors executive, per SNY sources.

In order to land Ujiri, it will probably take significant money and full autonomy.

There is no evidence that Ujiri, the man who built Toronto into a champion, would seriously consider leaving the Raptors for the Knicks.

The real key to luring Ujiri to Madison Square Garden is “full autonomy.” No Knicks president has had it. Phil Jackson was told he had it, but he wasn’t able to bring in his people who pushed out some of the entrenched staff. Sources told me that other people considered for team president have asked for the power to clean out the front office and bring in their own guys, only to learn Mills and others would remain in positions of power.

Owner James Dolan has stepped back from involving himself in basketball decisions in recent years, will he take the next step and let someone else fully run his basketball operations side without any pushback or interference internally?

One thing to watch with the Knicks going forward: Do they make any trade deadline deals? (That market really opens up soon, on Dec. 15 players signed this summer can be traded.) If New York does make a trade, is it a short-term boost kind of move designed to get wins now and maybe help save certain executive’s jobs, or are they trades focused on the long-term building of a winner? Since Jackson was in charge, the Knicks have done a good job not trading away their first-round picks, this would be a poor time to change that trend.

 

Myles Turner block, Julius Randle missed free throw with 0.1 left gives Pacers one-point win

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For the Knicks, under interim coach Mike Miller, this was a step forward. New York had been blown out by 37+ points their last two games, and that helped cost David Fizdale his job, but here they were with a chance to send the game to overtime late.

For the Pacers, this is just a win.

But that win came down to the final play — a blocked shot by Myles Turner then a missed Julius Randle free throw with 0.1 on the clock gave Indiana the 104-103 win.

“You get in those games, you’ve got to make another play and we just didn’t make another play,” Miller said, via the Associated Press. “Loved the effort. That was fun.”

A Jeremy Lamb and-1  had the Pacers up by six, 104-98, with 5:17 left. The Pacers would not score again.

What kept the Pacers alive was their defense — the Knicks shot 2-of-15 in the final 5:05 of the game, then with everything on the line Myles Turner came up with the game-saving block on Michell Robinson.

Julius Randle got the offensive rebound and was fouled when he went back up. That sent Randle — the Knicks biggest offseason signing — to the free throw line with 0.1 on the clock and the chance to force overtime. Randle hit the first, but…

There are no moral victories in the NBA, but this feels like one for New York.

For the Pacers, they will just take the win, thank you very much.

 

Russell Westbrook’s third-straight triple-double powers Rockets past Suns

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HOUSTON (AP) — On a night where James Harden‘s shots weren’t falling for three quarters, the Houston Rockets got big performances from those in supporting roles until the star stepped up late to close out the victory.

Harden scored 18 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter and Ben McLemore added 27 points to help the Rockets outlast the Phoenix Suns 115-109 on Saturday night.

Harden had a tough shooting night through three quarters and was 5 of 19 overall and 1 of 10 on 3s with 16 points before getting going in the fourth. The game was tied with about 7 minutes left, and he scored all of Houston’s points in a 13-6 run that made it 102-95.

“That’s how deep we are,” Harden said. “We have a really good team and guys that can make plays and knock down shots. More importantly we were focused on our defense.”

Russell Westbrook had 24 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists for his third straight triple-double and sixth this season. Harden finished 8 of 27, 3 of 17 on 3s and made 15 of 18 free throws.

Devin Booker led the Suns with 35 points after scoring a season-high 44 in an overtime victory at New Orleans on Thursday night.

Phoenix coach Monty Williams was proud of his team for staying in it until the very end.

“We have a mentality that we just don’t give in,” Williams said. “We’re playing young guys that are learning how to play against physical NBA men and that’s part of developing.”

The Suns cut the lead to five twice in the last 90 seconds, but both times Westbrook made a layup to extend the advantage. And the second time he was fouled on the shot and made the free throw to make it 114-106.

The Suns scored seven straight points, capped by a dunk from Kelly Oubre, to tie it at 85 with about 9 minutes left. After a timeout, Harden scored Houston’s first points in about three minutes on a layup to put Houston back on top.

It was tied again before Harden scored five points to give the Rockets a 94-89 lead. He stole the ball from Ty Jerome after that and was fouled by Booker on a drive, with Harden aggressively continuing forward and pushing Booker off the court. Harden later shoved Booker, and they both received technical fouls to the bewilderment of the Suns.

Harden made both free throws to make it seven points in a row and was fouled again after he stole the ball from Mikal Bridges. Harden made one of those free throws to make it 97-89.

“He finds a way to win the game,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “A lot of guys contributed. A lot of guys played well.”