NBA Lockout: LeBron James and the kingdom ruled by knights

15 Comments

source: Getty Images

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: Kings, Hawks could pass on Luka Doncic if Suns don’t take him No. 1

AP
3 Comments

Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton?

That’s the question many NBA fans are asking themselves, but according to one report it’s not the only thing several teams in the Top 3 of the 2018 NBA Draft are thinking about.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony says that while the Phoenix Suns may still be considering taking Doncic with their No. 1 overall pick, the Sacramento Kings (2) and Atlanta Hawks (3) are not.

The Kings and Hawks are reportedly leaning toward taking an American frontcourt player, which would point us toward guys like Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, and Mo Bamba.

Via ESPN:

The growing consensus among NBA decision-makers in attendance at Stark Arena in Belgrade is that the teams drafting behind the Phoenix Suns at No. 1, the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks are likely to pass on European prodigy in favor of American frontcourt players. The question remains whether a team will trade up into the top three to snag Doncic, or if he will fall to the No. 4 (Memphis) or even the No. 5 pick (Dallas) after being heavily scouted in the Euroleague playoffs against Panathinaikos and mostly struggling.

The information we’re missing is whether the Kings and Hawks are turned off by Doncic specifically. Is it because they haven’t scouted him as much as the other guys? Is it because of perceived team need? Do they think Doncic has peaked already? Are they worried about less information being available from a Euro prospect? All are possible.

With all the hype around Doncic, it would be shocking to see him fall out of the Top 3. It’s happened before, but both Ayton and Doncic are the guys atop this draft that people are licking their chops to get.

Could we see a team trade up to get Doncic from the Hawks or Kings if Phoenix goes elsewhere? Is this just false information funneled to the media as a means of depressing the market for Doncic or for ferreting out a big trade offer?

The conference finals aren’t even over yet and here we are talking about the incessant drama of the NBA offseason. I love this league.

Larry Brown once told Trevor Ariza to never shoot

Getty
2 Comments

Larry Brown is a legendary basketball coach, but he’s also been known to ascribe to a certain style. Brown’s regimen has sometimes rubbed players the wrong way, and likewise Brown has been overly attached to players which he likes.

For Houston Rockets wing Trevor Ariza, Brown’s staunch attitude almost ruined his career.

Ariza was a second-year player with the New York Knicks during the lone season Brown coached in the Big Apple in 2005-06. The UCLA product didn’t shoot well from the 3-point line in college or during his rookie season, so when Brown came to town he told Ariza to stop shooting from beyond the arc entirely.

Seriously.

Via Dan Woike and the LA Times:

More than a decade ago when Ariza was a second-year player, his coach with the New York Knicks, Hall of Famer Larry Brown, thought Ariza shouldn’t shoot from the perimeter. Like ever.

“He told me not to even look at the basket or shoot the ball,” said Ariza, 32. “I was definitely afraid to shoot. I just wouldn’t. I would not shoot.”

Woike’s story is pretty incredible, and goes on to detail how Ariza’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers reignited his career and his confidence to shoot the ball. That’s obviously crucial for the Houston Rockets who need Ariza docked in the corner as Chris Paul and James Harden run pick-and-rolls and isolate.

Stories like this always sound wild, if only because they’re contextually being compared to completely different eras. Ariza was drafted in 2004, and has seen three different eras of NBA basketball (Iverson era, point guard PNR era, 3-point era) pass by during his time.

Larry Brown’s in the Hall of Fame but he whiffed on this one.

Stephen Curry goes berserk, Warriors beat Rockets by 41 in Game 3

6 Comments

Stephen Curry had yet another big third quarter. Who could have seen that coming?

On the heels of the Houston Rockets’ 22-point win in Game 2, the Golden State Warriors decided to turn up the intensity as they returned home to Oakland on Sunday. The Warriors leapt out of the gate, scoring 31 points in the first quarter and playing monumental defense at the rim. Houston suffered from blown attempts in the paint for the entire first half, but it was their 3-point defense that stabilized their offense. The Rockets shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc in the first two quarters.

Then, perhaps expectedly, came the third quarter. The realm of 2-time NBA MVP Curry.

Golden State’s golden point guard failed to miss a single field goal in the quarter, helping the Warriors rally to start the half as well as fend off a Houston charge midway through the period. Curry completely took over with around six minutes left, dropping five of the Warriors’ next six made baskets.

It was enchanting, and everything we’ve come to expect from Curry when he’s at his best. After a made bucket, there was a shimmy. After a follow-up layup, a defiant stance on the baseline as he yelled to the crowd about Oracle Arena being his house.

Indeed, it was.

Curry and the Warriors did not let off the gas in the fourth quarter, finally burying the Rockets that both sides called a truce with 5:11 left, subbing out their big stars.

Houston was led by James Harden, who scored 20 points with nine assists and five rebounds, although he turned the ball over four times. Chris Paul had 13 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. Eric Gordon helped with 11 points off the bench. The Rockets turned the ball over 20 times, allowing 28 points off turnovers to the Warriors.

For Golden State it was Curry’s 35 points and six rebounds as the big story. Kevin Durant added 25 points, six rebounds, and six assists. The Warriors shot 41 percent from 3-point range as every starter scored in double-digits. Golden State was also able to limit its turnovers to just eight.

Game 3 exemplified the stratification between the two teams. Houston was arguably the best team of the regular season, with the caveat being that Curry was out for huge swaths of time due to injury. With Curry back on the floor and playing at full tilt, Golden State again looks unbeatable.

Steve Kerr was able to counter the Game 2 strategy from Mike D’Antoni, who ran everything during Houston’s win directly at Curry on defense to tire out the recently-returned star. Kerr’s tweaks resulted in a complete eruption from Curry, one Houston was powerless to stop. Coupled with the continuous pounding from Durant and the incessant, extra pass 3-pointers, the Rockets didn’t have a counterstrike option.

Game 4 is in Oakland on Tuesday at 6:00 PM PST. We’ll see if D’Antoni can work his magic and come up with another new strategy to try and slow the Warriors.

Marcus Morris: II did a s–t job defensively against LeBron’

Leave a comment

The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t dead. Not yet, at least.

LeBron James helped lead his team to a victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday, 116-86, to set the series at 2-1 with the Cavaliers trailing.

James was efficient, scoring 27 points on 8-of-12 shooting while adding 12 assists, five rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. As a team Cleveland shot an impressive 50 percent from 3-point range, dwarfing their marks from Games 1 and 2 in the series.

Meanwhile, the team-first strategy implemented by the Celtics finally got its first big test of the Eastern Conference Finals. A top defensive team, Boston was embarrassed by how it played in Game 3 and they weren’t afraid to admit it. Four of its five starters were double-digit minuses in the box score, including Marcus Morris, who many were touting as a LeBron stopper (or LeBron slower).

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Morris gave his honest opinion of how he played vs. LeBron. Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown said he was embarrassed.

Via Twitter:

Sounds about right.

Because you play the same team over and over again, by the time you get to the conference finals it’s all about finding counters to your opponent’s counters. The game-by-game strategy changes so much, and out of necessity.

The Cavaliers finally found their sweet spot, not only from beyond the 3-point line but in limiting the offensive contributions of both Morris and guys like Al Horford.

How Brad Stevens counters Ty Lue’s Game 3 strategy should be fun to watch, and reciprocal changes in the coming games will be the story of the series. Boston still has the edge, but the Cavaliers aren’t letting someone take The King’s crown without a fight.