NBA Lockout: LeBron James and the kingdom ruled by knights

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In 1964, the players for the NBA All-Star Game refused to leave the locker room at the famed Boston Gardens. The game was going to be televised, a huge step forward for the league, and the players knew this was their best chance at getting the owners by their tender parts. They refused to walk onto the floor unless the league recognized their union and promised a pension plan, paving the way for the players to finally start having some say in how the league they drove was run.

That was the first spark. Bill Russell, as documented in Aram Goudsouzian’s “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the basketball revolution,” was one of the most adamant in refusing to play. The players eventually played, disaster was averted, but from there on out, the power dynamic has shifted. At the time, the owners’ refused to acknowledge the players’ position and were outraged at the defiance.

Not much has changed.

In 1970, Oscar Robertson, as head of the NBPA, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NBA in pursuit of blocking the NBA-ABA merger, reforming the draft, and freeing players from being bound to one team. Can you imagine a world where if you were a star drafted by a team, you had no alternative than to stick with that franchise barring a trade? It took six years for the suit to be settled, but in 1976, NBA free agency was born. If Russell and the 1964 All-Stars had shown the owners they had fists and teeth, the Robertson suit was what showed the owners they were prepared to use them.

From the New York Times in 1988:

”What we’re going to do is discuss whether to proceed with our antitrust suit as expeditiously as possible, a work stoppage during the regular season, All-Star Game or playoffs, to cease having the union as being the bargaining agent for the players or a combination of any of the above,” Larry Fleisher, the general counsel of the National Basketball Players Association, said in an interview yesterday.

The players, who are seeking to eliminate the college draft, the right of first refusal and the salary cap, have been without a labor agreement since last June.

Since June, there was a three-and-a-half-month moratorium on player transactions, but that failed to hasten negotiations. The players have filed an antitrust suit in Federal District Court in Newark, and the league has countered with an unfair labor practices suit against the players hoping to bring them back to the bargaining table. There have been nine fruitless bargaining sessions.

via N.B.A. Union Hints at Strike – New York Times.

And in 1999, the NBA instituted its first lockout, killing half a season and destroying the sport’s lingering momentum following the exodus of Jordan’s Bulls, primarily because of the strength of Kevin Garnett and his six-year, $126 million contract.

The point I’m trying to make is that this battle has been going on for a very, very long time.

There’s a common mistake made in regards to these labor disputes, that they are about one thing. They are about money. They are about pride. They are about power. They are about labor strength. They are about employer rights. They are about all of these things, and somewhere running as a vein underneath the black, ashen skin of this decades long standoff is this: they are about the power of the individual player.

In short, the teams want to be the brand, the product, the market, the control. They want the players to be the asset, the employee, the robotic function of the system the team structure creates. You can argue that end point is about money. But it also speaks to ideological divides over whether the young, yes, in most cases black athlete should have the strength and power to determine his or her own basketball destiny.

And that’s where we reach this new group of superstars, smack dab in the middle of the whirlwind.

There were rumors as far back as 2008 that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh had a plan to play together. Particularly Wade and James were connected, each finding a friendship in one another born of stardom. But the “brat pack” or whatever name you want to identify them as goes so much further than those two. One of James’ best friends is Chris Paul. They are thick as thieves, those two plus Paul’s brother. Carmelo Anthony? Also very much part of the group. These players are the actualization of years of player empowerment. It’s part of what makes people so repulsed by them, the attitude is “This game is ours, and we’ll run it as we see fit.” That doesn’t go over well with a team-centric American spirit that believes in truth, justice, and the American role player’s way. We idolize above-average defenders who can’t score while scorning gunners. And while these players are complete (ok, that might be a bit extreme with Carmelo, but roll with it), they are still icons of individual dominance.

The older players have taken center stage in this current conflict, most notably Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and, I’ll admit it, scapegoat Kevin Garnett with their little exhibition in front of the owners, according to reports. I’ve blasted and mocked Garnett for his antics. They were unproductive and unprofessional, if reports are to believed. But they’re also not anything most players wouldn’t do or wouldn’t like to do. While I think lionizing Garnett under some obscenely veiled “he’s not a hero” (like John McClain wasn’t a hero, is the subtext there) is a bit much, it doesn’t alter the fact that Garnett just had the guts to say what most players want to but can’t because they don’t have the power. It was an exhibition of power.

Just like “The Decision.”

I’ve made the argument in the past that there’s more of a bloodline between Garnett and James through their responses to adversity and exertion of their power in finding better places to contend. But what’s revealing in this context is that James and Garnett are both champions of the power of a player, just through different means. Garnett yells and spits and screams and broods, that’s how he found his way out of Minnesota. Never turning his back on the fans or even the team, but clawing at the cage and disturbing the others enough to where the Wolves were forced to send him elsewhere. James, on the other hand, isn’t as dramatic or unrestrained, he’s the opposite, preferring to preen and smile while popping on a pair of designer shades. The Russell-Wilt comparison isn’t insane here, if you’re just talking about approach. (It should be noted here that Wilt was also the first player, reportedly, to want to end the boycott at the ’64 All-Star Game, so that, along with pretty much everything about both players’ games, makes this comparison chemically unstable. Again, just go with it, I’m rolling.)

Consider this from the Arizona Republic Saturday:

(Note: Forgive the extensive blockquote, please go read the entire article which is quite good, if only for food for thought, even if it’s a bit uneven on the pro-owner side.)

Behind the scenes, during the 2008 Olympics, James’ status among fellow players was impossible to miss. While Kobe Bryant acted like a perfect student around head coach Mike Krzyzewski, James struck a different pose. He wore bulky headphones to most open media sessions, making it clear he was off limits until he chose otherwise.

Once, Jerry Colangelo imported the late Myles Brand to speak to the Olympians. When Brand identified himself as president of the NCAA, James interrupted the speech with a shout from the back of the room.

“Of who?” he said.

“The NCAA,” Brand responded.

“I missed you, man,” he said. “My bad.”

The joke was inappropriate and yet hysterical. James was pointing out that he didn’t know Brand because he didn’t need college to get where he was going. You could almost hear his teammates bursting with laughter, yet they remained governed by a sense of restraint.

Later, I asked Wade about James’ brand of leadership, and why fellow players seemed to gravitate to him.

“He’ll say anything to anybody at anytime,” Wade said with near reverence.

At times, James might be misguided and tone-deaf. In a recent negotiating session, it was explained to James that the 43 percent of basketball-related income received by owners was not profit, rather a number that came before operating expenses.

According to a source, James replied, “Well, I have expenses, too.”

via NBA players elicit a stern warning as lockout rolls on.

Well, it isn’t quite “I’ve got a family to feed” or “We make a lot of money but we also spend a lot of money,” but had this been public, it would have been right up there on the Family Feud board for “things you can say which will destroy your PR positioning with fans during a labor dispute.”

Nothing better crystallizes the perceived arrogance of LeBron James better than that, or the dichotomy that exists. Many will be quick to point out the widely held belief that the players in fact find James’ arrogance distasteful. But consider the difference between how a player finds an opponent on the floor, or as a teammate, and how they consider him as a leader for their industry, as an example, as a leader for strength. LeBron James took the power fought for by Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson and translated it into the perfect… okay, nearly perfect re-organization of the sport’s DNA. He shifted the balance of power in the NBA over the next six years, even if they don’t win a championship, the path goes through Miami. He showed that a player can enter free agency, and not only go where he wants, but get a sign-and-trade to get the extra year he wants on the deal, and do it alongside two of his best friends.

The quote from James above is also a continuation of what we’ve seen from James and his crew. Chris Paul is on the labor committee, the smartest of all that group, quietly working to do what’s best for the players and control the interests of both his superstar friends, and the majority of the union made up in role players. Dwyane Wade reportedly told David Stern to get his finger out of his face, saying “I’m not your child.” Is there any clearer image of the divide than that? Wade, the friendly, championship-ring-bearing hyper-marketed superstar telling the league’s commissioner to treat him as the power entity he is and not as a burger-flipper taking too long on his lunch break. (Note: I’ve been that burger flipper who took too long on his lunch break. Those jobs suuuuck and it’s one of the reasons I still find the players’ position unpalatable. Burger-flippers work hard, too!)

Wade’s outburst was his Michael Jordan moment, where Jordan laughed off owner Abe Pollin and said if he can’t compete to sell his team. If James is the rod, and Paul the handle, then Wade is the tip of the spear.

When Carmelo Anthony was traded to the New York Knicks, I described it as an example of the new NBA player power structure. Anthony, again, close friend of Wade and James, manipulated his way not only out of Denver, where he didn’t want to be, but to the Knicks, where he specifically wanted to go. Lots of players have forced their way into a trade over the years. Tons. But few have been able to point to the NBA map, to a team already laden with salary and a superstar, with few assets to return (but Isiah Thomas still found a way to give up too much!), and say “There. That’s where you’ll trade me.”

The shortening of players’ contracts, the extreme luxury tax penalties, the Bird rights reforms, the pursuit of the elimination of the sign-and-trade, where do you think these things come from on the owners’ part? They’re trying to stabilize their economic model, that’s certain. But to do so, they know they have to regain power. They can’t sit by and watch a league that became driven by superstars starting with Magic and Bird, the only way the league survived, much less flourished, be controlled by those superstars. It’s fine to market those stars, to demand they smile for promos, do all the appearances, act and dress the way the owners need them to in order to make the league more popular. But those same players can’t control what happens in the league. That has to be the owners’ prerogative, in their minds.

Owners: “We have the money, we should have the power.”

Players: “We are the brand, and we will take what is rightfully ours.”

This has been going on since before 1964. From All-Star boycotts to antitrust suits to threats and Garnett all the way to “The Decision” and the looming force of Dwight Howard threatening to once again render the league’s landscape entirely reformed in the summer of 2012, this is about money, it’s about economics, it’s about labor law, it’s certainly about ego (past: Dan Gilbert, and future: the Orlando Magic). But it’s also about the power of the man who owns the floor, the ball, the court, the logo (but not the arena!) vs. the man who controls the hand that dribbles, passes, defends, and scores.

When you look at the history of this conflict, from ’64 all the way to the Decision and beyond, and you consider the racial implications which cannot be avoided in this context, the bitterness over what is essentially 2 percentage points, and quickly becoming less money than will be lost in a further-prolonged lockout becomes more understandable. It’s absurd, and it’s frustrating, and it’s disappointing, all at the same time. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have seen it coming.

It’s the modern NBA mythological history. The owners in search of their gold, and the players in search of their destiny.

Pistons PG Reggie Jackson says ankle injury still keeping him off court

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If Reggie Jackson didn’t injure his ankle, maybe Stan Van Gundy is still running the Pistons.

Detroit went 27-18 when Jackson played and 12-25 otherwise last season. The Pistons missed the playoffs by four games then fired Van Gundy.

Ed Stefanski takes over running the front office, and Dwane Casey is now coach. But they won’t necessarily get a healthy Jackson, either – even though Jackson played the final 12 games of the season.

Jackson, via Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

“Probably didn’t heal the way everybody thought it might once we had time off,” Jackson said. “Just haven’t been able to get on the court, but been doing everything I can to get healthy.”

“It actually feels good. I feel like I can cut again,” he said. “Once I get going fully, just see how it feels. But it feels night and day compared to last year. … I think anybody who watched, I never looked right. I never ran right. But that’s what you do. Everybody has nicks and bruises in this game. I wouldn’t change it any other way. I would still come back and play. It was just unfortunate that it wasn’t healed.”

“I’m going day to day,” he said. “I don’t necessarily know. I’m going to come in and do what they tell me, what they allow me to do. I think the organization, our coaching staff and the training staff have a great game plan on when I’ll be back and how to implement myself back into the workouts.”

Jackson not playing would be problematic for the Pistons, who look like a fringe playoff team. Ish Smith would be OK as a fill-in starting point guard, but moving Jose Calderon into the regular rotation could be dicey.

Calderon, who turns 37 next week, is fine in spurts. But I wouldn’t want to overly rely on him at this point. And, though Smith can hold his own as a starter, he looks much better as a reserve.

Even if Jackson gets healthy enough to play by the regular season, that wouldn’t solve everything. His endurance has been a problem at times, and limited offseason training could make that even more of an issue.

Report: Karl-Anthony Towns told Timberwolves he couldn’t coexist with Jimmy Butler

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Karl Anthony-Towns denied Jimmy Butler sleeping with Towns’ girlfriend caused a rift between the Timberwolves teammates.

But that doesn’t mean the rift is nonexistent.

Towns reportedly won’t sign his rookie-scale extension until Minnesota handles the Butler situation, and the standoff apparently isn’t at all over haggling about contract terms, particularly what would happen if Towns qualifies next season for the super-max.

Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN:

They’re offering him as much money as they can.

I’m led to believe that a big reason why he hasn’t signed it is that he – through his agent, Leon Rose – went to the Wolves and said, “Hey, I can’t coexist with Jimmy. Do something about it.” So, Figure out the Jimmy situation. On top of that – whether it’s right or wrong, this is the way he feels – that it’s been Jimmy and Thibs ganging up on him.

Towns can sometimes play passively, especially defensively. Two people who tend not to tolerate passive play, especially defensively, are Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau. I’m not sure they’re ganging up on Towns as much as they’re each conveying similar messages individually.

That said, I can also see why Towns would feel like they’re ganging up on him.

Ideally, Thibodeau would have taken Towns’ message and worked with Butler to find a way to better communicate with the center. Towns is an elite young talent, and it’s worth making him happy.

But Butler’s trade request opens the door for another solution. Minnesota can just excise the problem, though it’d probably mean a talent downgrade.

The biggest issue is the Timberwolves didn’t heed Towns’ warning and find common ground for everyone. That seems to reflect poorly on Thibodeau as a connecter, a necessary skill for successful head coaches and team presidents.

Magic Johnson already excited by LeBron’s offseason impact on Lakers

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Magic Johnson can already see LeBron James‘ impact on the young Los Angeles Lakers before they’ve even had a regular practice together.

After just a few weeks of unusually competitive offseason scrimmages, the Lakers’ basketball boss can’t wait to see how James’ leadership will translate into real success.

Magic and general manager Rob Pelinka on Thursday pronounced themselves thrilled with the offseason progress made by their revamped roster and James, their prize free-agent acquisition. The Lakers have been working out together informally at the club’s training complex ahead of the start of training camp Tuesday, and Johnson likes what he sees so far.

“Just to see all of them together playing a pickup game, oh my goodness,” Johnson said. “It’s something to watch. I’ve watched LeBron from afar. I’ve been at many of his games. But to watch him in the gym is a whole different thing. How much he makes everybody better, but also how he raises everybody’s level of play. His basketball IQ and his leadership ability, it’s all on display.”

Lonzo Ball won’t be on display in every workout at the start of camp, however. The Lakers’ second-year point guard had knee surgery two months ago, and Pelinka said Ball will be held out of five-on-five scrimmages when camp begins, even though he has been fully cleared for all basketball activities.

Johnson and Pelinka praised Ball’s offseason work to improve his awkward jump shot by adjusting his shooting mechanics. They also realize Ball has plenty of work to do.

The Lakers are determined to allow Ball to grow into his role as a playmaking leader, and Johnson believes Rajon Rondo will play a mentoring role. Along with James, the Lakers also acquired Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley to form a new veteran core for a 16-time NBA champion franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013.

The Lakers’ disparate collection of talent will need plenty of time to gel, but Johnson is already seeing it happen in those scrimmages.

“I mean, they are going hard,” Johnson said. “It’s physical. It’s tough. There’s trash talking. It’s just a lot of fun, and also a lot of teaching at the same time. It’s really great to see these young guys getting a chance to learn from champions.”

And as if he needed any reminder, Johnson has witnessed the singular skills of the 33-year-old James, who agreed to a four-year, $154 million free-agent deal.

“LeBron comes in, and he’s already in midseason form and shooting fadeaways and 3-pointers from almost half-court,” Johnson said with a broad grin. “And you’re sitting there saying, `Man, thank God we signed him.”‘

Along with blending their new additions, the Lakers must adjust to the loss of Julius Randle and Brook Lopez. Johnson and Pelinka aren’t worried about filling the space left by the departures of those two big men, believing they’ve got more than enough height to guard anyone.

“We feel we have two players at every position – a starter and then a backup to that person,” Johnson said.

Added Pelinka: “A lot of people have said this is one of the deepest rosters in the NBA, and that is an extreme strength to us.”

 

Knicks will not offer Kristaps Porzingis max contract extension to preserve cap space

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Inking Kristaps Porzingis to a max five-year, $158 million extension to his rookie contract seems like a no-brainer for the Knicks. Porzingis is more than the best player on the Knicks, he is where the fans have placed their faith. Yes, he’s coming off an ACL tear that will keep him out for at least part of this coming season, but he is the Knicks’ cornerstone to their rebuild. The man should get paid.

And he will the Knicks say… just not this summer.

Team president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry said at a press conference they talked with Porzingis about paying him as a restricted free agent next summer to preserve cap space to land more talent to play alongside him. From Marc Berman of the New York Post.

The Knicks hope to re-sign Porzingis when he is a restricted free agent in 2019. That way, the team could climb over the salary cap. An extension now would take up precious cap room. Doing it next summer would open up $10 million in cap space.

“Our philosophy is that we’re going to stay connected with [the Porzingis camp],” Perry said. “It’s a long-term thing. Obviously, you mentioned the point of the cap space in July. But we just feel like we’re in a real good space with him, as well as he is with us. And we’re going to do the right thing by him and this organization.”

“He’ll never feel like he’s not a cornerstone part of what we’re trying to do here,” Mills said. “He understands that. We make that crystal clear to him and his representation.”

The Knicks are going big game hunting next summer and Kyrie Irving is reportedly at the top of their target list. Jimmy Butler also could be an option (the Knicks are on his short trade list, but the team made it clear they are not giving up assets to get a player they can land in free agency).

What the Knicks are doing with Porzingis has been done before by teams, most notably the Spurs with Kawhi Leonard (and that move is not part of the ill-will between the sides that led to the trade to Toronto). It can work — if the player fully understands this is simply a cap/flexibility move and is not offended by the “snub.” The question is how does Porzingis and his camp feel about it? We will find out down the line.

Either way, the Knicks will be able to keep Porzingis, they can offer the same extension next summer, and can match any offer another team might make to poach the star big man. However, to get to that point Porzingis would have had to sign that offer sheet from another team, a sign of discord between the sides. The Knicks cannot let it get to that. They cannot allow bad blood build up. New coach David Fizdale flew to Latvia this summer to talk to Porzingis and get him on board with the plan. The energy seems good between them, the Knicks can’t let money get in the way of that.

At the press conference, the Knicks’ brass also refused to put a timetable on Porzingis’ return from the ACL surgery last February. He is expected to miss much of the season, not returning until around Christmas at the earliest and maybe closer to the All-Star break in February. Or later. The Knicks are not going to pressure him.