Maybe we should let LeBron finish his career before we decide his legacy

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Magic Johnson made a lot of friends around the Internet when he smacked around LeBron James the other day. Charles Oakley joined in. Cracking on LeBron as not all he could be has become a national past time. Saying he is not clutch because he doesn’t have a ring has somehow become accepted truth for people, the heart of LeBron’s legacy.

Except, maybe we should wait until LeBron finishes playing until we decide what his legacy will be.

I will give you four reasons why.

1) LeBron is 26 years old. He has nearly a decade of basketball ahead of him (well, assuming the lockout ends in our lifetime). He is just entering his prime. While the whole “not five, not six…” thing was arrogant, it would be foolish to assume he will never have a ring or a few rings. And if you don’t think those are redemptive of a reputation, ask Dirk Nowitzki.

2) Magic Johnson was not seen as clutch or a winner for a while. This seems ridiculous on the surface — Magic had an NCAA title and an NBA ring by the time he was 25 — but as Rohan Cruyff reminds us at SBN in 1894 Magic was seen as a guy out for stats and flashy play who didn’t care about winning.

Make no mistake: until the Lakers’ 1985 breakthrough against Boston, Magic’s failures were no less extensively highlighted than LeBron’s. In ’84, the Los Angeles Times published a story entitled, “Earvin, What Happened to Magic?” The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, not to be outdone, referred to Johnson as the “tarnished superstar” and “the goat of the series.” Public opinion has swung as quickly and forcefully against the 26-year-old James, who like Magic in ’84, has a ways to go before his “legacy” or all-time standing can seriously be considered.

I grew up in Los Angeles, and this is spot on. We know now how off that perception of Magic was, but at the time it was accepted truth.

3) At age 26, Michael Jordan had no rings and was considered a failure. Up until his first ring, many people considered Jordan a selfish gunner who would never win, as Tom Haberstroh reminds us at ESPN. Again, that perception was off, but in our society you are not clutch until suddenly you are. It took time for Jordan to win rings and cement his legend as one of the greatest ever to lace up sneakers. If you defined MJ at age 26, you’d get a guy a lot like LeBron.

By the way, if you’re going to throw Kobe Bryant out there, let me ask you this — if LeBron came into the league on a team with Shaquille O’Neal in his prime and veterans like Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Glen Rice, Brian Shaw and many others on it, how many ring would LeBron have? If you just said zero, you’re wrong.

4) LeBron James is more clutch than he gets credit for. I am not going to argue about the last two games of the finals against Dallas in 2011. Or Game 5 against Boston in 2010. LeBron is not perfect in the clutch and has work to do. But that is only half of the story, as Zach Lowe broke down at Sports Illustrated.

But to label James as ”un-clutch” or fearful of big moments based on the second half of the 2011 Finals and Game 5 against Boston in 2010 conveniently ignores the rest of his résumé, including the two series that immediately preceded the last season’s Finals — series in which LeBron destroyed Boston and then Chicago in crunch time. It ignores the 2009 conference finals against Orlando, in which James averaged an insane 39-8-8 line and won Game 2 with a legendary buzzer-beater. It ignores his 25 consecutive points against the Pistons in 2007 and that in 2008 he almost single-handedly defeated the Celtics, the eventual champions, in a seven-game series the Cavaliers had no place winning.

The point is that things are not black and white with LeBron, they are shades of gray. He is not a disaster in the clutch, he has good and bad games. And at age 26 it is far too early to define his legacy. Rings are a magic balm in our society, they changes our perception of players. We don’t know how we’ll perceive LeBron in a decade.

That doesn’t sit well with those who hate LeBron, because it requires patience and nuance. But it is the truth. They key parts of LeBron’s legacy have yet to be written.

Jimmy Butler says his meeting with Thibodeau, Timberwolves is Tuesday (today)

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There are a lot of questions surrounding Jimmy Butler‘s meeting with Tom Thibodeau and the Minnesota Timberwolves brass: Can the Butler/Karl-Anthony Towns relationship be repaired? Is Thibodeau the guy who could repair it, or is he entrenched on one side of that battle? Will the situation be resolved enough for Towns to sign the max extension to his rookie contract that has been sitting on the table since July? Will Butler asked to be moved?

That meeting had been reported to be Monday, but Butler said on Twitter it’s Tuesday, and did so in a snide way.

Who cares if the reporting (by Jon Krawczynski and Shams Charania of The Vertical) on the day was one off if the substance of the meeting is the same? It’s not some massive error that throws the entire reporting into question. This feels like a high school history teacher testing about the date for the battle of Gettysburg and not why it was a turning point in the Civil War — the substance is what matters more.

Butler doesn’t deny or get into the substance of the meeting, which is what matters.

What comes out of that meeting will have a significant impact on the Timberwolves one way or another this season. Minnesota won 47 games last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004, but it’s hard to see how they take a step forward if the locker room remains this fractured (and in a very deep West they need to take a step forward to make the playoffs again this season).

USA rolls past Panama in World Cup qualifying, 78-48

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PANAMA CITY (AP) — U.S. coach Jeff Van Gundy came into the start of this second round of qualifying for the FIBA Basketball World Cup cautioning his players that they would face enormous challenges.

They clearly heeded his words, and the Americans are now closing in on a trip to China next year.

Reggie Hearn scored 12 points, Dwayne Bacon added 10 and the U.S. easily got past Panama 78-48 in a qualifying game Monday night. The Americans have won both of their second-round qualifying games so far, winning them by a combined 87 points.

“It’s just an honor to be able to go to another country and wear this jersey,” said U.S. forward Henry Ellenson of the Detroit Pistons. “It’s just something really special and I love doing it. I was so excited to get the invite. This was a blast and a hell of an experience.”

The U.S. outrebounded Panama 50-34, held the hosts to 31 percent shooting and trailed for only 67 seconds in the early moments. Van Gundy went to his bench early and often, rotating players throughout in part because of a steamy feel inside the arena named for Panama’s boxing legend Roberto Duran.

“I think our greatest strength is our depth,” Van Gundy said. “Again, we’ve pretty much done this throughout. We play 10 or 11 guys, anywhere from 10 or 11 minutes up to the low 20s. We try to take advantage of our depth. Tonight, the crowd was good, but it was warm in there.”

And now, Nov. 29 – the next day of qualifying games in the Americas Region – sets up as enormous.

The U.S. and Argentina are tied atop Group E with 7-1 records and will play that day with outright control of first place in the group standings up for grabs. Uruguay and Puerto Rico will meet that same day, each entering with 5-3 records, meaning the loser there will be three games behind the U.S.-Argentina winner with three games left in qualifying.

The top three teams in Group E are guaranteed spots at the World Cup, which starts in China on Aug. 31.

After the way they played Monday, it seems like only a staggering collapse would keep the Americans from qualifying.

The U.S. used a 16-0 run – needing only about two minutes – in the fourth quarter to turn what was a relatively one-sided game into an even bigger rout. Chasson Randle, Hearn and Travis Trice all made 3-pointers to get that spurt going, and Ben Moore‘s layup with 6:30 left gave the Americans a 73-40 lead.

“It feels great. It moves us that much closer to qualifying,” Hearn said. “It moves us that much closer to the U.S. getting to the World Cup and getting the whole thing.”

The U.S. got an ideal start in a hostile arena, running out to a 16-3 lead as Panama opened 1 for 11 from the field.

The Americans were in control throughout, though there was a brief stretch late in the first half where the U.S. grip on things seemed to slip ever so slightly. Panama got within 31-23 with 2:04 left in the half on a jumper by Tony Bishop Jr. before Hearn and White combined to score the final five points before the break and send the Americans into intermission with a 13-point lead.

When the second half started, the U.S. resumed pulling away. Frank Mason, Dakari Johnson and Bacon scored the first six points of the third quarter, and the Americans’ lead was quickly pushed out to 42-23.

 

Report: Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins to take front office job with Clippers

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Selfishly, this makes me sad because I’m not going to get to read more of his work now.

Lee Jenkins is more than just one of the best NBA writers out there, he is one of the best sports journalists out there. A fantastic reporter with a great eye, Jenkins is an artist of a storyteller. He’s the guy other NBA writers are in awe of. He’s the man who co-authored LeBron James“I’m Coming Home” about his return to Cleveland, and more great in-depth stories than there is room to mention here.

And he’s about to leave Sports Illustrated for the Los Angeles Clippers, a true WojBomb from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Jenkins commented to Sports Illustrated.

“Sports Illustrated called on my 30th birthday, the greatest gift of my professional life,” Jenkins says. “I was one of those kids who grew up running to the mailbox on Thursday afternoons. SI taught me to read, and then, to write. With dream jobs, reality often disappoints, but everything about SI only exceeded my imagination. I’ve worked alongside my idols, Tim Layden, Tom Verducci and S.L. Price, and with my friends, Michael Rosenberg, Chris Ballard and Greg Bishop. There is no honor in this business like sharing a page with them.

“SI remains the ultimate platform for sportswriting and I would not leave for another media outlet. But I was offered an extraordinary opportunity to work in the front office of an NBA team and see the league I cover from a different angle. I’ve been privileged to tell a lot of triumphant basketball stories over the past decade. With Steve Ballmer and Jerry West, Lawrence Frank and Michael Winger, Doc Rivers and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, I’m going to try to help build one.”

I’m not sure exactly how they will define Jenkins’ role with the Clippers, but I have no doubt he will do it well. Plus, inter-office emails for the Clippers are about to take a ridiculous leap in quality.

 

League sends out updated salary cap projections, jump coming in future years

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The past two seasons, the free agency market has been tight. Following the drunken-level spending spree of 2016 — the year that gave us the Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and so many more anchor contracts — teams were cautious and out of money.

That’s about to change, because the salary cap is about to jump next summer, and some of those terrible contracts are starting to come off the books. This week the NBA updated its salary cap projections to teams, and Shams Charania of The Vertical got ahold of the memo.

For comparison, the cap is at $101.9 million, with the luxury tax is at $123.7 million.

With nearly half the players in the NBA as free agents next summer — did you notice all the one-year contracts this summer? — and the jump in cap space, about 20 of the NBA’s 30 teams could have cap space for a max player. Next summer is going to be wild.