LeBron James: From “Decision” to “Decider”

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A year ago, the most stunning thing about LeBron James was what he decided. He elected to reject his home-state fans, spurning friends and teammates to join both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Chicago. He went on a nationally televised special on ESPN in a plaid shirt with a neck beard and said the famous South Beach talents line. With one overly-produced interview with Jim Gray, James changed the course of NBA history, wrecked his own public image,  and made a bold statement. “The Decision” remains his most controversial move to date, a defining point in his career.

But Thursday night, it wasn’t what James decided, but how. Against the Bulls in Game 5, in a hostile environment down 12 with 3:36 minutes remaining, LeBron James decided it was over. There’s really no other way to put it. Dwyane Wade helped, but in reality, it was James. James simply chose to win the game. It was one of the most stunning examples of a player simply taking over since… Game 4 when James did it and Game 3 before that. James brought out an arsenal in Game 5 which didn’t require veteran savvy. James didn’t use tactical advantage or take advantage of a mismatch. James was just better.

I’m going to invoke Jordan here. Do not leap to the assumption the comparison is whole. Michael Jordan won six rings and did it as the alpha dog and is the best player of all time, yada, yada, yada. This is like comparing Jordan’s celebratory cry with Kobe Bryant’s, or his mustache to fascist dictators. It’s a superficial comparison, not meant to intertwine the fire that makes Jordan the icon of basketball.

But the shots James hit in Game 5, the pull-up three-pointer on a hair-trigger release, the post-up fadeaway jumper, the barrage he unleashed? They were shots you can’t defend. They were just build on one player being better than all others. And that’s what made Jordan great, in the visceral.

You will hardly ever see a player take hold of a game like James did against the Bulls and shake it until all the money ran out. What’s even more stunning is James immediately came back and played to the exact same level on defense. Derrick Rose had no escape. When the game was on the line and Rose had the moment to seize and send the game to overtime and save the Bulls’ season for five more minutes, James blocked it (with a healthy assist from Udonis Haslem for freezing Rose on the roll to the corner). James intercepted Rose’s jump pass, a jump pass. He was everywhere, all at once, smothering the MVP and taking hold of the destiny he never did in Cleveland.

Yes, that will be the latest criticism of James. Why did he not show this effort in Cleveland? Where was this effort in Game 5 against Boston? Why couldn’t he have had this kind of heart when he wasn’t flanked by elite players? Valid questions all. (What is not valid is “Why couldn’t LeBron try like Derrick Rose?” Rose’s field goal percentage should show that sometimes effort without intelligence does not reap the adequate awards sought.) But the problem is that we’re a results-oriented society, and ten times over when it comes to sports. No one questioned Kobe Bryant needing Pau Gasol to win as the alpha dog or why Bryant couldn’t pass as exquisitely as he did in 2009 even if his targets weren’t as good. The result is what matters. And the results have shown that the best overall player in the NBA at the moment is LeBron James. Why? Because he chose to be.

The only questions left are how good, or better, James chooses to be in the Finals?

And, what does Dirk have to say about that?

Game 1 is Tuesday.

Report: Clippers tried to trade for James Harden before landing Paul George

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Kawhi Leonard tried to recruit Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Leonard eventually got Paul George to join him on the Clippers.

Two other stars the Clippers tried to land? Bradley Beal and James Harden.

Jovan Buha and Sam Amick of The Athletic:

The Clippers inquired about Washington’s Bradley Beal and Houston’s James Harden, according to league sources, but neither star was available.

Beal fits the most obvious parameter of an available star: He’s on a bad team. But the Wizards aren’t interested in trading him. For most of the summer, they didn’t even have a general manager to negotiate a potential deal.

Harden is the far more interesting target. The Rockets have built around him, but they reached a rough spot with Harden and Chris Paul. Houston could have viewed that as the end of the road. The Clippers parted with an elite package for George – five first-round picks, two pick swaps, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. That’s the kind of offer that can open many doors. Instead, the Rockets went the other way by acquiring Russell Westbrook.

Still, a Leonard-Harden pairing would’ve been quite interesting. Both work best as offensive focal points, not contributing much off the ball. Harden’s defensive deficiencies would’ve put more pressure on Leonard. But the talent level would’ve been astronomical.

I think the Clippers are just happy with Leonard and George, who fit better together and still carry elite talent.

Report: NBA opens investigation into tampering following ‘tense’ owners meeting

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Kyrie Irving (Nets), Kemba Walker (Celtics) and Derrick Rose (Pistons) appeared to have their next teams lined up before free agency officially began. The Celtics reportedly complained about the 76ers tampering with Al Horford. Several other players agreed to terms so quickly after free agency began 6 p.m. June 30, it’s impossible to believe the deals weren’t pre-arranged.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said free-agency rules should be revised and enforced.

The league will also investigate.

Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Within days, the league opened an investigation centered on the timing of some of the earliest reported free-agency deals on June 30, sources familiar with the matter told ESPN.com. The scope of that investigation is developing. It is expected to include interviews with players and possibly agents and team employees, sources say.

The investigation followed a tense owners meeting, which multiple sources described to ESPN.

In the midst of it, Rick Buchanan, the NBA’s longtime general counsel, issued an evenhanded but sobering message to the room, multiple sources said.

Buchanan told the governors that as partners they were entitled to expect all teams to abide by a common set of enforceable rules for free agency — and that the league office would come back with a proposal for a revised set of rules that would then be strictly enforced. He asked the group if they were comfortable with the league “seizing servers and cellphones,” a line that stuck with many in attendance, according to sources who recounted the scene later.

It’s unclear whether this investigation will be punitive, exploratory or both.

Teams and players are absolutely violating the written rules. Some teams occasionally get punished. The rules are arbitrarily enforced, which is unfair. This investigation could lead to widespread punishment, though proving which teams did and didn’t tamper would be difficult. If it goes this route, expect uneven enforcement.

I’m with Silver: The rules should be enforced. An easy way to do that is writing the rules to match what currently occurs. As much griping as everyone does, the system mostly works. It’d work even better if everyone were on the same page about what is and isn’t allowed. So, this investigation could uncover details of how free agency actually happens. Then, the rules could be tailored around that.

This is clearly trending toward allowing contact with free agents sooner. That’s already happening, anyway. And billionaire team owners sure don’t want their privacy invaded for strict enforcement of a more-prohibitive system.

Tricky questions remain, though.

How will the NBA handle players tampering with each other? That’s forbidden by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but Silver has practically said he’ll allow it. And it happens plenty. I’d prefer it becomes officially allowed. Having unenforced rules can lead to selective enforcement.

When will teams and free agents be permitted to contact each other? Seasons end at different times, depending how far teams advance. Even with the starting period moved up, some teams will still seek an edge.

So, there’s no perfect solution.

But there are obvious problems with conditions now. It sounds like the NBA might finally be addressing them.

Report: Damian Lillard out, Julius Randle and Jaylen Brown in for Team USA consideration

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Team USA is losing its best player.

Again.

After Anthony Davis then James Harden withdrew from consideration for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Damian Lillard is also pulling out.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is a major drop in star power for the Americans. Their best player on the World Cup roster could be Kemba Walker? Kyle Lowry? Khris Middleton? This is no Dream Team.

The United States also went from stacked to thin at point guard in a hurry. Walker and Lowry remain – if Lowry is healthy. Donovan Mitchell and Marcus Smart are combo guards. But that’s a big drop from an expected 1-2 punch of Harden and Lillard.

Julius Randle and Jaylen Brown won’t help there.

Brown is a solid addition to the roster pool. He’s a versatile wing who can fit into many lineups and styles. That malleability will be important as Team USA can longer rely on a huge talent disparity.

Randle probably makes less sense. He’s an impressive individual scorer with passing ability. But his ball-stopping tendencies and woeful defense as a big leave major questions about his ability to contribute with other top players. He’s more of a floor-raiser. If the Americans need a floor-raiser, they’re in trouble.

DeMar DeRozan apparently withdrew from the training-camp roster before anyone knew he was even added, which is pretty fitting for this team.

Thunder’s new uniforms commemorate Oklahoma City bombing (photo)

Oklahoma City Thunder
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For years, “Oklahoma City” referred to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.

The Thunder have helped move the city forward and broaden its image. But the team doesn’t want to distance itself from that tragedy, which remains a central aspect of Oklahoma City’s identity.

To that end, the Thunder have unveiled new uniforms.

Thunder release:

The uniform design features symbols that represent elements of the memorial. Across the chest, “Oklahoma City” appears in gold-lined letters, with the twin Gates of Time spanning down the side of the jerseys that carry into the shorts. The times 9:01 and 9:03 appear within the vents of the shorts. They reflect the innocence of the city at 9:01 before the attack, followed by the time the city began to come together and heal at 9:03. The white on the side of the shorts represents the Reflecting Pool, a shallow depth of water that provides comfort and peace. “Service,” “Honor” and “Kindness” appear above the jersey’s tag – reflecting the ideals of the Oklahoma Standard, and the manner in which Oklahoma citizens treat one another and their community.

The Survivor Tree, a 90-year-old American elm at the site of the memorial, is also depicted in full color on the belt of the uniform’s shorts. The tree serves as a symbol of human resilience and strength as it withstood the force of the 4,000 pound bomb. Inside the jersey, a blue ribbon is layered with the words, “We Remember Those Who Were Changed Forever, April 19, 1995.” Along the back of the neck, Thunder blue, navy, yellow and sunset stripes tie the uniform to the team’s traditional colors and represent the many gifts of remembrance that visitors left on the fence at the original site and continue to leave at the memorial today.

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The Thunder are the second NBA team to base a jersey on a significant and tragic world event. The Grizzlies have worn uniforms designed around the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

I have mixed feelings on what could be a burgeoning trend.

In both cases, the iconography appears to be meaningful and solemn. There’s value in elevating these important symbols. The Thunder will also donate to the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum, which honors those affected by the bombing.

But the purpose of frequently introducing new uniforms like these is to turn a profit. It feels cheap to exploit a tragedy to come up with a new jersey idea. That’s especially unavoidable with the glaring advertisement on these Oklahoma City uniforms.

The Thunder also revealed revised versions of their white, blue and orange uniforms:

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The changes to the white and blue uniforms are subtle. The orange uniforms – now with bright blue letters and numbers – really pop. For better or worse.