LeBron James and his difficult-to-assess super teams

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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)

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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.

Report: Kawhi Leonard didn’t travel with Clippers to Disney World, expected to arrive in few days

Kawhi Leonard in Orlando
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A Clippers-Lakers Western Conference finals – featuring Kawhi Leonard vs. LeBron James – is one of the most anticipated potential attractions of the NBA’s resumption at Disney World.

But Leonard must get there first.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard did not travel with the team on Wednesday to Walt Disney World for the resumption of the NBA season, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Leonard was given permission by the organization to tend to a family matter and the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time NBA Finals MVP is expected to join the team on campus in a few days, sources said.

Hopefully, everything is alright with Leonard and his family and he arrives as smoothly as this report indicates. The NBA has protocols for players who travel to Orlando after their teams. Leonard isn’t unique in having a personal issue delay his arrival.

But this situation bears especially close watching for two reasons:

1.  Kawhi Leonard might be the NBA’s best player. The Clippers are a top-tier championship contender. Leonard’s whereabouts hold more significance for the season than, say, Magic guard Markelle Fultz‘s.

2. The Clippers have misled to protect Leonard before. Though it was easy to see their logic, it leaves them with less credibility here.

Again, hopefully this is only a minor snag. We’ll know more within a few days.

Report: Nets signing Jamal Crawford

Jamal Crawford vs. Nets
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Most points scored in a player’s last game (among non-active NBA players):

  • Kobe Bryant: 60 (LAL-UTA April 13, 2016)
  • Jamal Crawford: 51 (PHO-DAL April 9, 2019)
  • Alec Peters: 36 (PHO-DAL April 10, 2018)

It’s time to remove Crawford from the list.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

A defensive liability who needs the ball in his hands, 40-year-old Crawford can still make difficult shots remarkably well. But most teams can build a lineup and system that consistently create more efficient shots than the tough looks Crawford specializes in.

The Nets aren’t most teams.

Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie are both out. Caris LeVert, Garrett Temple Chris Chiozza and Tyler Johnson are an underwhelming backcourt rotation.

Crawford can add scoring punch. With the point guard-deficient Suns last season, he also showed passing ability, though a good team won’t ask too much of him.

Reminder: The Nets will keep their first-round pick only if they miss the playoffs. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving healthy, Brooklyn would probably convey a later pick to the Timberwolves next season.

If nothing else, this is a tremendous personal achievement for Crawford, who badly wanted to keep playing. He has kept in tremendous shape for his age and built a strong reputation in the locker room, earning himself more opportunities.  If everything goes according to plan, Crawford will join Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Willis, Robert Parish, Kobe Bryant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to play 20 NBA seasons.

Stephen Jackson peddles another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, says he’s misunderstood

Stephen Jackson
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Former NBA player Stephen Jackson defended Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who has drawn criticism – including from the Eagles – for posting an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory (incorrectly) attributed to Adolph Hitler.

DeSean Jackson apologized twice and pledged to educate himself.

Stephen Jackson insists he’s being unfairly maligned.

Stephen Jackson:

Today’s word is assume. Assume.

To all my Jewish people, I love y’all. Y’all took the video the wrong way. I said he was right stemming from a conversation we had before I got on Live about how they’re handling him and how they handled Cooper when he said the n-word. They didn’t handle them the same way, and that wasn’t right. And that’s what I was talking about. I love y’all. You’ll never find a video or article of me saying I hate anybody. Let me clear that up.

Assume. Today’s word. As a black man, you get pulled over by the police, they assume you’re about to run. They assume you’ve got drugs in the car. They assume you’ve got a gun. They assume the worst, right?

I didn’t say nothing about Jews or supporting Hitler at all in that video. But that’s what they assume I said. And y’all wonder why we’re fighting for equality. Because y’all assume the worst from a black man. I love everybody. I’ve always stood that way. Love for all who have love for all. So, why would you assume I hate somebody?

Too often, apologies get labeled as a “non-apology.” This is a non-apology.

When he said DeSean Jackson is “speaking the truth,” Stephen Jackson sounded like he was talking about DeSean Jackson’s Hitler post – not a private conversation with DeSean Jackson, as Stephen Jackson indicates now.

A reminder of what Stephen Jackson said about DeSean Jackson (emphases mine):

He was trying to educate himself, educate people, and he’s speaking the truth, right? He’s speaking the truth. You know he don’t hate nobody, but he’s speaking the truth of the facts that he knows and trying to educate others.

How do those bolded sections make any sense based on a private conversation between DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson?

If this is a case of Stephen Jackson simply not choosing his words carefully enough, it’d be far easier to forgive him. After all, he has now gone out of his way to say he loves Jews.

But Stephen Jackson doesn’t deserve much benefit of the doubt while he also spreads other anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Fred Katz of The Athletic:

Police too often make negative assumptions about Black people. That should be addressed.

But, best I can tell, Stephen Jackson is being judged fairly here. He’s promoting anti-Semitic messages. He’s getting treated like someone promoting anti-Semitic messages.

Do I believe Stephen Jackson wants to be anti-Semitic? No. My best guess is his heart is in the right place while his head is in the wrong place. But Stephen Jackson is still spreading anti-Semitism. Even if that’s due to “only” ignorance, he can’t correct that until acknowledging his errors and learning from them. Blaming everyone else for misunderstanding him is not the answer.

Stephen Jackson is also wrong in his comparison to Riley Cooper, a white Eagles receiver who was caught on video saying the n-word in 2013. Like with DeSean Jackson, the Eagles released a statement criticizing Cooper. They didn’t cut Cooper. They also haven’t cut DeSean Jackson. Even if they eventually cut DeSean Jackson, I suspect they’ll follow similar guidelines: Deciding whether the player is good enough to offset the trouble caused by his reprehensible speech.

Magic player tests positive for coronavirus

Orlando Magic
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The race for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference keeps getting sadder. Somehow.

The Nets are decimated. The Wizards are missing their best players. And the Magic – who already have Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu sidelined – have complications with Markelle Fultz and another unnamed player.

Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel:

The Orlando Magic entered the NBA bubble Tuesday without an unidentified player who tested positive for COVID-19 and guard Markelle Fultz, whose entry was delayed due to a personal issue.

Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said during a videoconference with reporters on Tuesday that Fultz is dealing with a personal matter unrelated to the virus. His absence is excused and the league is aware of his situation, according to Weltman. He said Fultz is following all safety protocols and expects a “seamless transition” for the guard’s return, although Weltman did not have a specific timetable for when that will be.

It’s unclear whether the unnamed player was among the 25 players the NBA announced tested positive.

Fultz and the other player will have to follow protocols for players travelling to Disney World after their teams arrive.

The Magic have D.J. Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams at point guard if Fultz is unavailable. But I’ll take Weltman at his word that Fultz will return to the team smoothly.