How LeBron James found his focus these playoffs

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LeBron James plays his best when he is comfortable.

He’s not wired like a Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett, who turn insults real and perceived into fuel that motivates them and gets them into their zone. LeBron needs to tune out the outside world to get in his zone, and in playoff runs past he has struggled to do that.

This time he has found his place — he has his family with him in Miami, he is reading books in the locker room before every game — and it has him closer than he has ever been to an NBA championship. LeBron and the Heat are up 3-1 over the Thunder and can close it out at home in Game 5 Thursday night.

Finding his comfort zone started with having his fiancé and two sons join him in Miami. They were still in Akron last year but moved down to Miami during the lockout. But that family is giving him space.

“Since the postseason everyone has been shut down,” LeBron said about the distractions that family can bring. “They understand what I’ve been going through over the years. My family has just been allowing me to just play the game and not worry about everything else that’s going on. They wouldn’t dare get in my way at this point.”

To release that pressure on game night, James has turned to reading in the locker room before games. The LeBron James book club has read Jerry West’s autobiography “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life” (which I recommend highly), “Decoded” by Jay-Z and a series of other books including the Hunger Games trilogy.

“It just slows my mind down,” LeBron said. “It just gives me another outlet. Throughout the playoffs all you think about is basketball. All you want to do is play basketball. But at the same time it can become a lot. It can come to a point where it’s overloading the mind and you think about it too much…

“The reading gave me an opportunity to — just for those couple hours of the day, or those 20, 25 minutes before the game — just gives me an opportunity to read and think about something else, and get a sense of what else is going on besides the game of basketball. It’s made me comfortable.”

And that comfort has led to a finals MVP kind of playoff run. It has led James to be within one more win of his ultimate goal. It has brought him closer to living up to his potential than at any time in his past.

We’ll see if it can help him take that last, big step to NBA champion.

NBCsports.com’s 50 best players in 5 years: Players 40-36

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What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

As a fun summer project, the NBA team at NBCSports.com put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. The team working on this included Dan Feldman, Tom Haberstroh, Rob Dauster, Tommy Beer, Steve Alexander, and Kurt Helin (and thanks to Tess Quinlan and Mia Zanzucchi for the design help).

There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but here it is.

Here are the links to players 50-46 and 45-41. These are players 40-36 on our list.

40. LeBron James

LeBron James wants to play in the NBA with his son, who’s set to graduate high school in 2023.

They have a chance to make that happen.

It starts with LeBron already remaining elite into his mid-30s. That gives him a lot of runway to decline and remain a viable NBA player.

Before LeBron this year, 16 players made an All-NBA team in their age-34 season. A whopping eight of them still played in the league five years later. That’s a huge number for that age demographic.

But we’re projecting LeBron to do more than just stick in the league for a couple of seasons with his son. We’re expecting him to remain quite good.

Picking a 39-year-old for a list like this is always dangerous. Injuries become more likely. Declines can be sharp. There’s a decent chance LeBron is completely finished well before 2024.

Only Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dirk Nowitzki (appointed by the commissioner this year) were All-Stars in their age-39 seasons or later. Karl Malone and John Stockton are the only other players to even near that level while so old.

LeBron might be the special player to join that group.

He’s an unprecedented athlete with his combination of size, strength, speed and coordination. There’s so much room for his athleticism to slip and remain good enough. Not that LeBron is idly letting himself deteriorate. He invests heavily in taking care of his body. Perhaps most importantly, in recent years, LeBron has carefully selected when to exert full effort.

LeBron also has the most basketball intelligence in the league. Even as his physical tools erode, here’s betting he finds ways to thrive.
—Dan Feldman

39. Marvin Bagley III

The biggest knock on Marvin Bagley III: He’s not Luka Doncic.

Bagley will likely never live down the Kings drafting him No. 2 last year ahead of Doncic, who ranks way higher on this list. But Bagley is the on track to make his own name in the NBA.

With quick hops and amazing elevation, Bagley finishes above the rim so effortlessly. It’s easy to see that translating to other areas of his game – primarily defense.

Bagley isn’t as overwhelmed defensively as it seemed he’d be entering the league. He has shown nice timing for blocking shots. Sure, he must improve his awareness and get stronger. But that’s true of nearly every young big.

Offensively, Bagley has also shown more skill than expected. His shooting range and ball-handling are trending in the right direction.

Bagley will probably never catch Doncic. Bagley might not surpass No. 4 pick Jaren Jackson Jr. or No. 5 pick Trae Young, either.

But Bagley is a highly intriguing young player. That ought to be appreciated.
—Dan Feldman

38. Gary Harris

In 2017-18, Gary Harris posted 5.5 win shares. Here’s a complete list of other shooting guards who are younger than 25 and have had such a productive season:

At 24, Harris is a rare combination of young and established at the NBA’s most talent-scarce position.

The base of his game is 3-point shooting and defense – the highly coveted skills that allow him to fit into any situation. But he also has enough all-around ability that a 3-and-D label sells him short.

After continuously rising his first four years in the NBA, Harris backslid while playing through injury last season. He just wasn’t nearly as sharp on either end of the floor. That got largely overlooked because the Nuggets had their best season in several years. Harris provided enough.

He should be healthier and better going forward. If he picks up where he left off a year ago – not guaranteed, but definitely possible – he could even develop into an All-Star.
—Dan Feldman

37. James Wiseman

Wiseman has a chance to be really good. He stands 7-foot. He has the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow him to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. He is a capable defender with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And he is skilled enough where he has the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens.

The biggest question with Wiseman is what he expects out of himself. In the words of one NBA draftnik, “he thinks he’s Giannis when in reality he’s a lot closer to Myles Turner.” There is nothing wrong with being Myles Turner. Turner just turned 23 years old and he is coming off of a season where he averaged 13.3 points, 7.2 boards and an NBA-best 2.7 blocks while shooting 38.8 percent from three. He’s really good. You are going to see him in this top 50.

But Turner knows what he is and what he isn’t, and he isn’t Giannis. If Wiseman embraces the fact that he can be a top five center in the NBA doing the four things I listed above at an elite level, then he’ll make himself a lot of money while making some NBA GM very, very happy.
—Rob Dauster

46. Aaron Gordon

Because he plays in Orlando with a franchise that seems to be in a constant state of rebuilding, because his game improves incrementally every year rather than by the massive leaps we see from him on the court, fans tend to overlook Aaron Gordon. He’s just the Dunk Contest guy to many.

We shouldn’t — Gordon is a damn good player. Not just a phenomenal athlete, although he is that, too, but Gordon is a player. He averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds a game last season, shot a career-best 34.9 percent from three, saw his assist numbers improve again (16.6% assist percentage), has the handles to create his own shot, has the versatility to play the three or the four, and he’s a quality defender on the perimeter or in the post. All that and he will turn just 24 right before training camp opens, he will be in his prime at age 28 in 2024. He’s a guy who fits the direction the NBA is headed: A versatile 6’9” player who is skilled and can help a team a lot of ways.

The question remains: Can Gordon take the next step and be a trusted go-to scorer in the crunch time of games? Can he get there with his incremental improvement, or will it take a big leap?

Gordon puts in the work. We’ll see if he can reach that level, and we’ll see if Orlando management can put a team around him that would better complement and showcase what Gordon can do. If that comes together, we should have an All-Star level player in Gordon in 2024. A guy who is a top two (or maybe three, depending on the roster) player on a very good team. We’ll just have to see if he (and the Magic, or eventually another team) can get there.
—Kurt Helin

PBT Podcast: Talking “Top 50 players in five years”, players 26-50

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Starting this week, NBCSports.com’s NBA team is rolling out it’s “50 best players in five years” project, trying to project what the NBA will look like in five years, the summer of 2024. Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

In this podcast, Rob Dauster from NBCSports.com’s college basketball page joins me to talk about players 26-50 on our list, which includes up-and-coming high school players such as James Wiseman and Emoni Bates. The back half of the list also includes a lot of current stars who will fade in five years — Klay Thompson, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and more — but the question is how much do those stars fall off? It’s a fun discussion about the NBA’s best and how they will fit into an evolving league.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Kawhi Leonard to give away 1 million backpacks to kids in Southern California

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Kawhi Leonard is back in his home area of Southern California, and now that he’s a member of the Los Angeles Clippers he’s decided to get into the swing of charitable giving.

Leonard recently decided to team up with the Clippers organization to give out one million backpacks to children in need as a way to relieve some of the pressure from low-income families as students head back to school in the fall.

The Clippers and the NBA star worked with Baby2Baby, an organization that provides for low-income children from ages 0 to 12 for basic necessities. This week, Leonard started giving away backpacks to the Moreno Valley Unified, Los Angeles Unified, Inglewood Unified school districts. Leonard went to school in the Moreno Valley system as a kid.

Via the OC Register and Twitter:

“Going to the NBA, this is what I wanted to do; I wanted to give back to my community,” said Leonard, who started his day in Moreno Valley, where he brought backpacks to Cloverdale Elementary, his old school. “That’s why I’m so happy to be back home.”

“With the Clippers, just want you to know we got you guys’ back, as long as you work hard and have a goal set,” said Leonard, who Tuesday was working to fulfill one of his own.

“That’s a goal of mine for this year, being great on and off the court,” he said. “And I felt like this was a great way to start.”

This is an extremely cool and directly effective way to give back to the community. Helping disadvantaged kids in need directly has a ripple effect on their lives, and anything players like Leonard can do to help is a huge win for the children in these districts.

Clippers reportedly add Tyronn Lue to coaching staff

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Tyronn Lue will be coaching in Los Angeles this upcoming season, but it won’t be for the Lakers.

News broke on Tuesday that Lue had accepted a job on Doc Rivers’ staff with the Los Angeles Clippers. Lue is yet another big-name addition to a squad that already added players Kawhi Leonard and Paul George this offseason.

Lue was a championship-winning coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, and he has an innate understanding about how to deal with star players in the NBA.

Via Twitter:

It’s also important to understand what kind of culture Rivers, Steve Ballmer, and the rest of the Clippers front office is trying to build in Los Angeles. In addition to their proposed new stadium in Inglewood, the Clippers are trying to take over L.A. one big-name at a time. That includes everyone from players to coaches, even ones who won championships as the head honcho.

There’s no doubt that Los Angeles is striving for the Finals this season, and adding a guy like Lue to the bench is yet another reiteration of that fact.