The Inbounds: Retro-veterans and the once-and-future rim protector

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In 2006, signing Ben Wallace to a deal would have been in an incredible franchise-changing move to radically alter the outlook of your defense.

In 2009, trading for him would have been seen as a desperate and flawed move towards overpaying for an unproductive and underwhelming player.

In 2012, it’s a pretty solid move which can shore up your bench, bring veteran leadership (VETERAN LEADERSHIP ALERT) to your locker room and provide you with a strong-willed icon to rally behind.

 

In 2007, Marcus Camby was a shot-blocking machine, the Defensive Player of the Year, an All-Star candidate and considered a superb all-around player.

In 2010, Camby was considered an overrated defender who helped too much, gave up too many points at the rim, and relied too much on his shot-blocking to be considered actually that good of a defender.

In 2012, he’s a solid addition and a huge upgrade to the Knicks’ bench, bringing the kind of tough defense at the rim and rebounding they’ve been missing for several years down low. He and Tyson Chandler should prove to be quite the conundrum for teams.

 

And so it goes.  People like to blame the 24-second news-cycle for the way we tend to lose perspective on things, but it’s always been this way. Go back through the articles all the way back to the SI.com archive about anyone whose game went up or down, and you’re going to find things which look ridiculous in hindsight. That’s pretty standard. You write what you know at the time and some things in this world are just unforeseeable. Look at Stephon Marbury’s career and tell me if during it you would have thought he’d wind up eating Vaseline on UStream. It happens all the time. But particularly with big men defenders, we see a different loping arc.

Tyson Chandler was once thought of as just an athlete who couldn’t put it together. Then all of a sudden in New Orleans, he put it together, and while dunking CP3 alley-oops, it turned out he was a pretty great defender. Three years later, he wins a title with the Mavericks as the biggest difference-maker on a team that had been great for a decade.

Wallace was such a pivotal part of the Pistons’ championship, it’s almost impossible to overrate his performance. He was everywhere. Then in Chicago, he was slow-footed, slow-healing, and just slow. Scott Skiles’ decision in 2008 to repeatedly play him over Joakim Noah was the stuff to drive your hair out. But then he returned to Detroit after a sting with Cleveland where he was just dead money, and he was that lovable veteran who handled the defense as well as he could with the team falling apart around him. The Pistons have moved on this season, after it was thought Wallace would retire, but he’s reportedly thinking about giving it another go. He was still productive last season, still a good defender, but the expectations have changed. That’s the big differential.

It’s the same with Camby. There was a huge backlash against Camby right before he was traded to the Clippers from Denver, based on his tendency to pursue the block instead of keeping with the smart rotation. But since then, he’s been a good defender in Los Angeles, a great defender in Portland, and a pretty good one in Houston. He re-joins the Knicks and should make a substantial impact… for a guy his age. The expectation has changed, and that allows us to view him either more accurately or more favorably, depending on your inclination.

It makes you wonder about the future of so many players we routinely flambe on the internet stove. JaVale McGee could change his identity defensively four times over the next eight years of his career. Joakim Noah could reach DPOY status and then plummet to overrated, injury-prone joke-butt before finishing his career in Chicago a hero. Serge Ibaka laughably wound up second in Defensive Player of the Year votes last year, largely based on the same reasoning Camby wound up winning it in 2007. But he’s going to improve, just like Chandler and Camby did. What then?

The point, as always, is that an NBA career is almost never the same year-in-and-year out. It’s a topographical map with texture, peaks and valleys. Defensive big men are more prone to latter development we’re discovering, because of the amount of mental improvement and wisdom needed to excel in the NBAs new “all-help-all-the-time” defensive structure. You can label a player fairly as a poor defender now, but don’t let it sink in so much that you forget to watch their improvement, even as they get older. Point guards must improve younger, big men almost always make a jump later in their careers. And their continuing evolution makes up a significant impact on how team defenses, and legacies, can change.

Ben Wallace the leader, Camby the rock, Chandler the icon. What will McGee, DeAndre Jordan, and Ibaka become, before they become what they will even later?

Cavaliers were clutch all season, then again in it’s biggest moment

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The Cleveland Cavaliers had the point differential of a 43-39 team this season, just a couple of games above .500. Yet they finished the season 50-32, seven games better than their differential suggested — the highest variance in the NBA.

Why? Because LeBron James and the Cavaliers were clutch. In games that were within five points in the final five minutes this season, Cleveland was 30-15 with a +18.2 points per 100 net rating (second best in the NBA, behind Houston).

That has carried over to the playoffs, where the Cavaliers came into Game 7 Sunday night 6-1 in clutch games with an insane +36.2 per 100.

Game 7 was another clutch one — it was 76-72 Cleveland with five minutes to go — and once again the Cavaliers won, advancing to the NBA Finals. This is the fourth straight year for this team, and the eighth year in a row for LeBron to make it to the NBA’s biggest stage.

In the final five minutes of Game 7, LeBron had six points, while the Boston Celtics team had 7. When we say the Cavaliers are clutch, it all starts with LeBron (as do all things Cavaliers at this point).

“He craves those moments. He loves those moments,” Kyle Korver said after LeBron was clutch in the Cavaliers’ Game 6 win that set up Sunday’s showdown, but what he said applies now, too. “When the game’s on the line, when the season’s on the line, he’s been rising up. That’s what the great players do.”

LeBron accepts that challenge, and through the postseason he has had an impressive 58 true shooting percentage, with a ridiculous 44.3 percent usage rate. Bottom line, he has had to carry the Cavaliers in the clutch, and he has done so efficiently.

“I’m the leader of this team, and I’m going to give what I’ve got,” LeBron said. “My teammates, they respect that.”

It’s going to take more than clutch LeBron and friends to win in the Finals — both of the teams in the West are much tougher than anything the Cavaliers have seen so far. However, we know that LeBron is going to give everything he has left.

And if the game is close late, don’t bet against the Cavaliers.

 

 

 

Jayson Tatum throws down epic dunk on LeBron James (VIDEO)

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The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers held a barnburner of a Game 7 on Sunday, with Boston’s Jayson Tatum going head-to-head with LeBron James.

For his part, LeBron was everything we expected in a Game 7. The King played spectacularly, willing his Cavaliers squad to yet another NBA Finals appearance as Cleveland edged Boston.

But before things were sealed, and the game decided, Tatum got off a raucous dunk right in James’ eye that made many wonder if the torch was on the cusp of being passed.

The play came with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter with Tatum driving down the lane and LeBron moving over to help recover on defense. It would have been easy to anticipate another big LeBron playoff block, but Tatum continued his surprising season by dunking all over The King.

Via Twitter:

Cleveland won the game, 87-79, but Tatum’s dunk on the big stage is just one of many reasons why the Celtics are going to be a complete hassle next year when they’re back to being fully healthy.

LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time

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He’s done it again. LeBron James, the King in the East, played 48 minutes en route to his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance after beating the Boston Celtics in Game 7 at TD Garden on Sunday, 87-79.

Bow down to the greatest player of all-time.

Much has been made of LeBron’s place in history as his legacy has began to galvanize toward the end of his career. The conversation has raged on about LeBron vs. Michael Jordan, or Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Preference varies greatly between fans, while some still pick the centrist route and say there’s no simple way to compare across eras. There’s been mathematical attempts to rank the two, and even MJ’s old teammates have said LeBron is a more complete player.

On Sunday, James bounced yet another Eastern Conference Finals opponent, carrying his teammates on his shoulders and playing without All-Star Kevin Love. There was never a doubt for many watching Sunday’s matchup in Massachusetts. Before the final buzzer, LeBron had won 23 straight Eastern Conference playoff series. His determination was absolute, and the cards were always stacked against Boston even given their postseason record at home.

You could sort of just see it coming.

James was the motivating force in the first half for Cleveland, scoring 17 points while no other teammates tallied in double digits. The Cavaliers shot an abysmal 12 percent from beyond the arc, and the Celtics looked like they would be able to control the rest of the game as the crowd at home motivated them forward.

But Cleveland came roaring back in the second half, continuing to put on a defensive show, the kind we would not have expected of them during the regular season. Without Love, the Cavs had to make do with Jeff Green, who turned in a surprising performance. Green scored 19 points, shot 50 percent from the field, and grabbed eight rebounds.

In the face of a strengthening Cavaliers attack, the Celtics seems to retreat. Boston’s final offensive possessions in the fourth quarter were hectic, slow, and unsuccessful. While the Cavaliers tried their hardest during the final eight minutes to get Al Horford switched on to LeBron in isolation sets, the Celtics surprisingly mirrored the same offensive tactics. Instead of playing their regular offense, or running plays to get shooters free, or trying to attack the paint against James (who was in foul trouble) Boston resorted to trying to exploit any mismatches found through Cleveland’s switches.

The result was four field goals inside the 3-point line for LeBron in the fourth quarter, as much as the entire Celtics roster combined.

The play of the game came with 1:04 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers leading by nine. LeBron was out on the break, with Marcus Morris trailing behind him. Morris went to foul LeBron, making no obvious attempts on the ball as he grabbed onto the Cavaliers star’s shoulders. Even with all of his might, Morris couldn’t stop James from scoring while drawing the foul. It was indicative of the entire fourth quarter for the Celtics, who scraped, clutched and grabbed as much as they could but did not have an answer for LeBron.

So here we are, with LeBron having won another Game 7 out in the Eastern Conference as he heads to another Finals. He probably won’t match Jordan’s championship mark. But Jordan didn’t match Russell’s. Or Horry’s. Or Havlichek’s, either.

Instead, we have to rely on what we see in front of our eyes combined with their dominance, weighted for context. Sunday night’s performance should help push LeBron over Jordan, if he wasn’t there already. James is a more complete player, which has always been apparent, and now he’s survived every challenge that’s been thrown at him. Declaring James the best player of all-time did not come because of Sunday’s game. It’s been years in the making, throughout the entirety of his 15-year career. The win over Boston was just an indication of his place in history.

LeBron has gone nuclear with 40+ point performances. He was part of the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history against the Golden State Warriors. He beat the Indiana Pacers all by himself, in the playoffs, just this very season. James has had a career season at age 33, playing 48 minutes in the 100th game of the 2017-18 season. LeBron has willed his way to yet another NBA Finals, with perhaps his worst team since the 2006-07 squad that was swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the season’s final series. To add to the accomplishment, LeBron pushed this Cavaliers squad past a stunningly good team in the Celtics, on the road, and without Love.

James is the greatest American sports story of our generation, and he’s the best player the NBA has ever seen. If you disagree, that’s OK. But after Sunday night, you’d be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.

Watch Victor Oladipo drive the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 (VIDEO)

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Victor Oladipo is Indiana’s favorite son after the Indiana Pacers guard blasted through the competition during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Oladipo averaged 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and led the league with 2.4 steals per game. Oladipo’s 3-point shooting improved year-over-year, and his VORP skyrocketed in his new leadership role. Many feel the Pacers won the Paul George trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder thanks to Oladipo.

Thanks in part to his stellar play, Oladipo was invited to drive the pace car at the start of the 2018 Indianapolis 500. Turns out he was pretty good at it.

Via Twitter:

Oladipo is apparently going to be honored with the steering wheel from the pace car he drove. No doubt taking part in a classic local sporting event like the Indy 500 will help ingrain Oladipo into the sports fabric in Indianapolis even further.