NBA Finals: Go ahead and hate Heat, but respect them

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LeBron James’ decision — and by extension LeBron himself — has become the most polarizing figure in the NBA.

That can be good for business. Heat game television ratings are through the roof — because half the people tune in to root against them. Not that ABC cares much, they just want you to tune in for the finals. But the Heat are celebrity basketball players now.

I’m not sure I get why all the LeBron hate. Because he dared go team up with other stars? As if Magic Johnson didn’t have Kareem and Worthy, or Larry Bird didn’t have Parish and McHale, as if Jordan didn’t have Pippen and a bevy of others.

Maybe it’s because LeBron, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade inverted the NBA power grid — they had the temerity to decide to team up of their own accord, rather than having some GM or rich owner do it for them? That doesn’t bother me, I like the players having more power, but maybe that’s it.

Maybe it’s that the way LeBron handled The Decision, because for some it was egotistical? It was. It left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. But if you’re going to pick your favorite sports stars based on them not having an ego you’re going to have about two to cheer. Across all sports.

Whatever the reason you hate them doesn’t really matter. Go ahead. Having heroes and villains and playing out the drama of sports through that lens is at the heart of being a fan. Arrange people in those categories however you wish. But you had better also do this:

Respect the Heat.

Because while it took most of a season they have figured it out. They have gone from playing next to each other to playing off each other. They are playing smart, good basketball. They are a team, and potentially a special one playing beautiful basketball.

Did you watch LeBron the distributor in Game 4 against the Bulls? He made smart decisions with the ball virtually ever time down. It felt like Magic at times. Did you watch him on defense shut down Derrick Rose at the end of games? Shutting down the opponents best was like Jordan. When the moment called for it, did you watch him drain three pointers? That felt like Bird.

Beyond LeBron, Bosh has figured out how to step up when the other two are defended well or have focused on other tasks, he has figured out how to mesh with them. Wade remains as good a penetrator as there is in the league, as good a leader as the league has now.

Now you see the Heat going to a LeBron and Wade pick and roll at key moments. You see Bosh working hard off the ball and slashing to the rim. You see them all trusting Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller (and even Mike Bibby). You see LeBron and Wade taking on rebounding when the Heat needed it after Game 1 against the Bulls.

You see a team. All three are versatile. All three can play at both ends of the floor. All three — and by extension the Heat — have evolved into a dangerous team. Not a collection of stars, but a team.

You don’t have to like that. But you have to respect it.

Mark Cuban explains some, though not all, of his role in Mavericks’ hostile work environment (video)

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As a result of the investigation into his team’s hostile work environment, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban will donate $10 million “organizations that are committed to supporting the leadership and development of women in the sports industry and combating domestic violence.” The Mavericks will also report to the NBA on structural changes to their organization.

And Cuban showed accountability by granting an interview to Rachel Nichols of ESPN:

I appreciate Cuban sitting for this interview with Nichols, who grilled him. I appreciate him apologizing to the actual victims. I appreciate him taking responsibility for the wrongdoing that happened beneath him. I appreciate him explaining what he did wrong and what he learned. I appreciate him, along with Mavericks CEO Cynthia Marshall, explaining the changes they’re making to rectify the situation.

But, though he explained his logic and subsequent lesson from handling Earl Sneed’s domestic violence, Cuban gave no real answer to how he let former CEO Terdema Ussery – found to be an serial sexual harasser – remain in power for 15 years. Taking Cuban at his word – that he was blind to the sexual harassment prevalent in the Mavericks business office – means shattering his image as a great businessman. The sharp and in-charge owner Cuban presented himself as would never grant Ussery such unchecked power for so long. “If I was in our business office five times in 15 years, that was a lot,” Cuban told Nichols. “I mean, it’s embarrassing to say.”

And that’s the benign explanation. Embarrassing is nothing compared to the alternative – that Cuban was as involved as he portrayed, which would mean he knew about Ussery’s misconduct and excused it. The choices are that Cuban’s first-rate businessman image was fraudulent or that he’s directly complicit in Ussery’s sexual harassment.

More than anything, hopefully Cuban has truly learned how not to repeat his prior errors.

Report: Clippers emerging as frontrunner to sign Kawhi Leonard

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Does Kawhi Leonard prefer the Clippers or Lakers in 2019 free agency? Reports have been mixed, though credible journalists have increasingly favored the Clippers since LeBron James signed with the Lakers. Yet, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN held out on the Lakers being Leonard’s top choice.

Now – with Jimmy Butler reportedly preferring a trade to the Clippers – Wojnarowski appears to be coming around on the Clippers.

Wojnarowski:

The Clippers have two max contract slots available in July, and are emerging as a front-runner for Toronto’s All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard when he becomes a free agent in July, league sources said.

Leonard and Butler would form a tantalizing tandem.

Butler reportedly wants to showcase himself in a big city while Leonard seemingly wants both to be in Los Angeles but remain out of the spotlight. Together, maybe they could both get what they want.

Though Butler’s demanding style has worn on teammates in Minnesota, nobody has ever accused Leonard of lacking work ethic or competitiveness. I bet Butler would respect Leonard.

They’re both elite defensively and at least very good offensively. There could be issues with how often each likes to isolate, but get all that talent to L.A. then figure out the rest later.

The question for the Clippers: Do they trade for Butler now or wait to try signing both stars in free agency next summer? The latter option carries more upside, allowing the Clippers to preserve assets. But it also risks Minnesota trading Butler and his Bird Rights to another team and him re-signing there.

The Clippers have several veterans – Tobias Harris, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari – who might appeal to Tom Thibodeau, who seemingly wants to win now. L.A. could also offer 2018 lottery picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Alexander. However, the Clippers can’t convey a first-round pick until 2021 at the earliest.

I don’t know whether they’ll trade for Butler, but if the Clippers do, I know we’ll crank up the Leonard-Clippers speculation even higher. There’s value in putting that in Leonard’s mind while the Raptors are trying to woo him first-hand over the next year.

Reports: Jimmy Butler’s trade preference is Clippers, Knicks less interested

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Knicks president Steve Mills said New York wouldn’t trade its draft picks and wouldn’t trade for players it could just sign in free agency. In other words: No more Carmelo Anthony– or Andrea Bargnani-type deals.

Then, Jimmy Butler – who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer – requested a trade from the Timberwolves and put the Knicks on his list of preferred destinations (with the Nets and Clippers).

Will Mills hold firm in his patient plan?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Brooklyn and the Clippers appear motivated on Butler, while the Knicks have been firm all summer that the team does not want to part with assets and instead prioritize signing free agents outright, according to sources.

The Knicks should be reluctant to trade for Butler now. Especially with Kristaps Porzingis injured, Butler is unlikely to help New York win meaningfully this season. It’d be much better to sign him next summer and preserve assets.

But there’s no guarantee the Knicks sign him next summer. Whichever team has his Bird Rights and ability to offer him a larger contract will have the upper-hand. There is value in trading for him now.

Perhaps, the Knicks can find a worthwhile Butler trade that includes trading picks. The only way to find out is negotiating with Minnesota.  For New York to eliminate the idea outright because the team made mistakes in similar situations would be misguided.

But Knicks are going to Knick.

At least New York isn’t Butler’s first choice.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Might that other max slot go to Kyrie Irving?

First, L.A. must make the best offer to the Timberwolves and one acceptable to a reportedly reluctant Tom Thibodeau. Then, the Clippers must lure Irving – or any star (Kawhi Leonard?) – from his team.

It’s easy to imagine. It’s far more difficult to turn into reality.

Report: Jimmy Butler less enthused about Lakers after they signed LeBron James

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In 2014, Jimmy Butler said, “I like being a role player. Star has never been next to Jimmy Butler’s name. It never will be. I’ll always be an under-the-radar dawg.”

Then, Butler kept getting better and better. He started to appreciate his stature within the game. He took a leadership role on the Bulls. He embraced celebrity.

Maybe his trade request from the Timberwolves – ideally to the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets or L.A. Clippers – is the next step in this evolution.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

He is enamored with the idea of playing a central role in a big market, sources said. Butler had once imagined playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, but LeBron James‘ arrival as the franchise’s cornerstone made it less appealing for Butler in the prime of his career, league sources said.

Playing with LeBron isn’t for everyone. Kawhi Leonard reportedly became more reluctant to join the Lakers once they got LeBron. (Interestingly, Leonard is reportedly dissuaded by the hoopla LeBron would attract while Butler apparently believes he wouldn’t get enough of a spotlight).

And of course, Kyrie Irving requested and received a trade from LeBron’s Cavaliers last year. Irving and Butler are friends, and maybe Irving warned Butler about the perils of playing with LeBron.

I’m not sure how this report fits with Butler wanting to play with Irving, though. Irving is more popular than Butler. Perhaps, Irving holding a smaller stature than LeBron is enough for Butler. Maybe playing with Irving would be the exception to Butler’s desire to have his own team in a big market.

Or maybe Butler still winds up in Los Angeles with LeBron. Butler was reportedly open to it, though that’s a pretty low standard.

No matter what, Butler should pursue what he wants. NBA careers are short. Players should make the most of theirs, whatever that means to them.

Butler has so far shown he can balance working hard and playing well with stardom. He has earned the right to seek a larger public profile without major consternation about what it’d mean to his on-court production.