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.

Report: Jason Kidd holding off on Cal job until Lakers decide on Luke Walton

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The Los Angeles Lakers could be headed toward a departure with their head coach in Luke Walton. The Lakers will miss the playoffs yet again, this time coming up short despite adding LeBron James over the summer.

James has reportedly wanted Walton out for some time, and when the season ends many are expecting to see the two sides part ways. The list of potential coaching candidates for Los Angeles appear to be a group of also-rans, potential LeBron favorites who no self-respecting basketball decision-maker would want in charge of a championship-hopeful franchise.

One of those potential head coaching candidates is Jason Kidd, who was fired by the Milwaukee Bucks in January of 2018. We have seen rumors of Kidd being on the list of candidates for the Lakers job for some time, but now it appears that Kidd is basing his decision-making on the availability of the Los Angeles job.

Via Twitter:

Kidd holding out on making an employment decision until the Lakers decide what to do with Walton makes sense. That L.A. would be interested in Kidd to lead their group is another thing altogether.

Talent is a salve that has often pushed teams passed their failings, and this offseason for the Lakers will be a big-time test of that medicine. Los Angeles is not a well-run franchise, and the fact that they have expected anything different from their results speaks to the dissonance between their ability to make basketball decisions outside of branding.

But if they can add one or two big stars in free agency this summer, they might have enough talent on the roster to overcome the inherent issues with having LeBron run the team by proxy. It’s hard to have any faith in the Lakers to make the right decision at this juncture, and considering Kidd for the most important head coaching position in the NBA is par for the course.

Caris LeVert thinks Nets could land Kevin Durant

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Nobody is quite sure where Kevin Durant will play basketball next season. Many are expecting him to leave the friendly confines of the Golden State Warriors and strike it out on his own if they win the championship again this season.

The New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers have all been mentioned so far. The Brooklyn Nets also seem like a potential suitor, and they will have significant cap space before needing to re-sign some of their current players.

Could Durant be interested in heading to New York toward a better run organization than the Knicks? At least one Nets player thinks so. Speaking to the New York Post, Caris LeVert said that he felt Brooklyn had all of the things needed to attract a superstar like Durant.

Via New York Post:

It’s pretty cool,” LeVert said before the Nets eliminated the Lakers from playoff contention with a 111-106 win. “It speaks to not only what we’ve done this season as a team, but to what D’Angelo has done on the court and also being a leader off the court that guys like Kevin Durant want to be close to him and a part of what he’s doing.

“I don’t think superstars, especially Kevin, want to be the one who has to carry the whole team, the full load on his own. He’s in his 30s now, so he definitely wants to go to a team that has a good core, has a good culture, has good guys on the team, and we fit all those categories.”

“[Russell’s] played at an All-Star level. Everybody wants to play with a great point guard, a great floor general, and he’s put himself in that conversation for sure. That lessens the load for a guy like Kevin Durant or another superstar who wants to come play with us. They don’t want to be the only one on the team, so that’s very attractive that D’Angelo has elevated himself to that level to play with.”

What Durant is thinking is anyone’s guess, and what he wants at this juncture is sort of up in the air. I think many of us are getting caught up in that idea of him needing to continue to win championships. That’s probably backed by the rumor that Durant wants to be seen as the best player of his generation.

But if Durant came away from Golden State having won three championships, and with a clear Hall of Fame resume, couldn’t he go somewhere for the final stage of his career simply for the money, the fame, and the branding? The Knicks would be a horrible basketball decision, but Brooklyn wouldn’t be a bad idea. Both would work for the latter strategy for Durant.

The Warriors star is hard to predict, and there’s no use trying to. But at this point, it appears that players are starting to make their overtures to attract one of the best players in the NBA.

Derrick Rose has surgery to remove elbow bone chips

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Minnesota Timberwolves guard Derrick Rose has undergone arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow.

The Timberwolves announced Saturday that Rose had the procedure done at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The Wolves previously said Rose was unlikely to play again this season. They’re already eliminated from playoff contention.

Rose signed a one-year contract after joining the Wolves for the final few weeks of last season and their playoff series. When healthy, Rose has largely flourished, often playing off the ball instead of his natural point guard position. He averaged 18.0 points and 27.3 minutes in 51 games, his second-highest scoring mark since he tore his left ACL in 2012.

Rose missed 16 games earlier in the season for a variety of lower-body injuries.

More AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Frustrated over Celtics collapse, Kyrie Irving questions defensive plan on Kemba Walker

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Charlotte closed Saturday game on a 30-5 run, much of it fueled by Kemba Walker who had 18 of those points and was 4-of-6 from three. It was a punch-to-the-gut loss for the Celtics that was reminiscent of the low point of the season, the back-to-back blown leads against the two teams from Los Angeles.

After the game, Kyrie Irving was frustrated and had words about the young players on the team and Brad Stevens defensive choices. Via A. Sherrod Blakely at NBC Sports Boston.

“Judge us when we have our full lineup,” Irving said [Al Horford, Aron Baynes, and Gordon Hayward were out]. “But obviously when we come out and play like this with a bunch of young guys down the stretch, figuring things out … things are bound to happen but there’s no excuses….

“It’s one-on-one,” Irving said. “Down the stretch, I try to come in and help as much as possible. We should have probably trapped him more like every other team does in the league but we didn’t. He torches us every time we play them so it’s no surprise.”

What does the team talk about after a game like this?

“Being more mature down the stretch,” Irving said.

Of course, this is going to fuel the “is Kyrie happy?” and “is he going to leave this summer?” talk, but doing any of that before seeing what taste the playoffs leave in his mouth is premature.

Irving is right to be frustrated, however. With everyone. Here we are entering late March and we’re still asking “when are the Celtics going to get it together?” Most teams do trap/double/blitz Walker because he’s a one-man show and the theory is to let anyone else beat you. Walker did get some of those late 18 on catch-and-shoots working off the ball, but the critical ones late he was one-on-one with the ball in his hands — and he’s an All-Star, maybe All-NBA level player, he’s hard to stop.

Overlooked in this, the Celtics shot 2-of-19 in the final 8 minutes of the loss. It’s not just defense that blows a lead, it’s not scoring. Irving was 1-of-5 overall and 0-of-4 from three during the Hornets run. There is plenty of blame to go around.

The question is can the Celtics get on the same page and fix it before the playoffs?