LeBron James and his difficult-to-assess super teams

33 Comments

LeBron James’ infamous “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” decry is now used to mock LeBron’s arrogance.

In 2010, it was hardly viewed a joke.

It was seen as a warning.

When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in South Beach, some people thought the trio had ruined the NBA. The Heat would win every championship without resistance, critics complained. The league was no longer fair, turned on its head by a kid from Akron who didn’t want to work for a title that other all-time greats rightfully earned.

You can at least see why the critics worried. Just a few years prior, the Celtics went 24-48, traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce and went 66-16 and won the championship. It seemed assembling a big three of stars could immediately vault a team to a title, and the Heat’s big three resembled Boston’s. It was just younger and better.

But it wasn’t easy for Miami, and anyone who thought it would be proved foolish. The Heat started 9-8 and lost in the NBA Finals that first year.

With LeBron, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving joining forces in Cleveland this year, expectations have been tempered. Sure, LeBron doesn’t have much credibility when he says the Bulls are better than the Cavaliers right now. But in his Sports Illustrated letter, he spoke about a lengthy process ahead, and that has been taken seriously.

In 2010, predictions for Miami’s win total typically landed in the high 60s, with guesses into the 70s not uncommon. This year, typical predictions for Cleveland’s win total land in the high 50s or low 60s.

Why is there such a difference? Are Love and Irving not as good as Wade and Bosh were? Perhaps, but I think another reason supersedes that.

The narrative has changed.

In 2010, it was all about LeBron creating a super team with Wade and Bosh. It was about their arrogance, their talent, their refusal to wait their turn.

This is different. It’s about LeBron going home.

But when assessing a team’s actual on-court production, the narrative matters very little. In either case, LeBron is playing with two star teammates and a solid supporting cast. How people perceive the situations doesn’t affect the reality of a team’s chances once the ball is tossed up.

Thankfully, there are ways to cut through the narratives.

One of the most pessimistic views on the Heat in 2010 came from Kevin Pelton’s SCHOENE system, a statistical projection that pegged the Heat for 58 wins. Their actual total? 58 wins.

This year, SCHOENE projects the Cavaliers will win 68 games. That would rank as tied for the fourth-best mark of all-time, behind only the 1995-97 Bulls(72-10), 1996-97 Bulls (69-13) and 1971-72 Lakers (69-13).

Of course, SCHOENE is far from infallible. But in this case – when stars from different teams align – it has worked pretty well, and I think there’s a reason eye tests got it wrong on the 2010 Heat. There just isn’t much precedent for assessing this situation.

If before each season we ranked teams based on the combined win shares of their three players who posted the most the previous year, nearly all the annual league leaders would include three players returning to the same team. A handful would have have one newcomer. And only two – LeBron’s 2010-11 Heat and 2014-15 Cavaliers – would have two newcomers. (None would feature three newcomers.)

Here are those teams, distinguishing between:

  • Returning players (gold)
  • Newcomers on a team with only one in the top three (navy)
  • Newcomers on a team with two in the top three (wine)

image

If you’re wondering why the 2008 Celtics don’t appear, Pierce and Allen were coming off down seasons. That’s a key reason Boston didn’t set off a preseason panic akin to Miami in 2010.

But we saw how easy the Garnett-Pierce-Allen Celtics made it look, and then we overcorrected for the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat. Now, we’re overcorrecting again in the opposite direction for the Cavaliers.

There are just so few examples of teams suddenly adding two stars to form such an elite big three. Really, there are only two, and both involve LeBron coming on board.

You could argue the first didn’t immediately work, with Miami falling short of its championship expectation. But I’d say it worked exactly as well as the numbers suggested, with the Heat winning their predicted 58 games.

If the Cavaliers meet expectations – realistic expectations, not the watered-down projections overly influenced by the Heat’s failed title bid in 2011 – it will be a special season in Cleveland.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

Getty
Leave a comment

New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

Stacy Revere/BIG3 via Getty Images
1 Comment

A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
2 Comments

Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

Lance King/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-