NBA Finals: Mavs win Game 4, but all eyes are on LeBron

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The Miami Heat lost Game 4, 83-86, in part because of LeBron James. That’s okay. Players are allowed to have off nights. They’re allowed to struggle. They’re allowed to be passive once in awhile, and frankly, it’s human nature to ease off the gas from time to time. But in doing so, they strengthen the possibility of their team losing, and open themselves up to a very specific criticism. Having a bad game isn’t some great evil to be met with moralistic damnation, but it is worthy of an accurate appraisal, and the reasonable exploratory questions that will inevitably follow.

So, I’ll bite. I’ll ask the question we’ve all asked ourselves, with an acknowledgment upfront that neither I nor any other basketball scribe hold all the answers: What the hell happened to LeBron James?

It makes little sense to discuss LeBron’s struggles without making note of the incredible defense played by the Dallas Mavericks. They didn’t pit Shawn Marion or Jason Kidd or DeShawn Stevenson against James and leave that poor, solo defender to their own devices; every Maverick on the floor was tuned to James’ frequency. They had his pick-and-rolls swarmed. They had his jump passes covered. They had five defenders functioning in harmony in an attempt to limit the best player in the NBA, and they succeeded. The pressure is still on James to find his way out from under the constant zone coverage geared to thwart him (and he’ll have to do better than the brand of idle facilitation he tried to fly with in Game 4) but Dallas did a hell of a job in executing their game plan.

That said, most dimensions of James’ struggles were of his own doing. It’s difficult to mount a defense of a star player who refuses to go to his strengths, even as he faces a talented defense geared to stop him. After all, accessing those strengths regardless of circumstance is James’ job. He’s paid and revered for his ability to do what no one else can, and when that ability fails him, his very identity as a player comes under fire by whisper. Playing poorly for a single game doesn’t make LeBron James anything less than he was a day ago, but it introduces the idea — however fleeting and faint —  that the greatest basketball player on the planet can be contained. It’s a hushed message that will neither be confirmed nor denied on this night or even in these NBA Finals, but one that observers of the game everywhere must grapple with.

There’s no problem with James initiating the offense or playing the roll of a creator for others, but his Game 4 struggles didn’t stem from merely assuming point guard duties in the face of an aggressive defense. James didn’t pass; he passed poorly. He turned the ball over four times to hedge the impact of his seven assists, and committed a handful of near-turnovers that didn’t quite blemish his stat line but nonetheless halted the Heat offense.

James may be the closest thing this game has to perfection, but even he has his limits, his moments of hesitancy, his in-game vices. In a way, Game 4 didn’t tell us anything about James that we didn’t already know; James is a man of immortal talent guided by mortal sensibilities. That isn’t an indictment so much as a reality, and it’s no more true of James than it was of Jordan, Bird, Magic, or Wilt. The game’s greats are safe in their critique-proof pantheon, but those players had poor games, too. Accounts of those games don’t often show up in mythologized magazine sidebars or rosy retrospectives, but they’re there — the nights of maddening turnovers, a quick trigger, disinterested defense, or just horrible matchups — buried beneath lore upon lore.

James struggled to even get into the flow of the game, much less produce within it. But he’ll be back. He’ll be back, and we’ll all feel rather silly for wondering where he’d gone off to, as if a failure to engage in fully actualized basketball had somehow shifted James into another dimension. LeBron didn’t disappear. He didn’t cower. He didn’t back down from a challenge, or engage in any other sin of purely rhetorical relevance. He had a bad game at a horrible time, and we’re right to wonder why. We’re right to try to understand, just as I’m sure LeBron himself will try his damnedest to wrap his head around the events of the last few hours. It’s all very confusing, and jarring, and odd. But it’s nothing new. Individual failure is inherent to the game, and as much as we’d like to pretend that LeBron’s Game 4 shortcomings were further evidence of some inescapable character flaw unique to him and other miscreants alone, the product of James’ sin wasn’t so different from that which occasionally tarnished all of those who came before him and all who will come after him.

Basketball — even on the NBA’s biggest stage and for its biggest star — can be a struggle.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-