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.

Portland reportedly to guaranteed Carmelo Anthony’s contract for rest of season

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Portland was in desperate need of frontcourt help but, like the rest of the league, it was not sold on Carmelo Anthony as the answer.

The Trail Blazers decided to take a chance on Anthony, but a low-risk one — a non-guaranteed contract.

It’s worked out better than anyone had hoped — Anthony is averaging 16.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game, and the Blazers have been +14.2 per 100 possessions when he is on the court. Portland is 4-4 since he was signed (although, to be fair, the four wins came after Damian Lillard returned from injury to the lineup).

With that, the Trail Blazers have decided to guarantee Anthony’s contract for the rest of the season, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Consider this a reward for Anthony.

The bigger reward is that Anthony is getting to redefine the end of his career. Understandably he did not like the way it ended, with getting played off the floor in the playoffs for Oklahoma City, then only lasting 10 games in Houston. The market had dried up for Anthony until Portland came through with an offer.

Now Anthony will be with the Blazers through the end of the season. At the very least.

Rockets to officially protest loss to Spurs due to disallowed James Harden dunk

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After 48 hours of bluster, the Houston Rockets are going to follow through with actions.

The Rockets are going to officially protest Tuesday night’s loss to the Spurs on the grounds of James Harden‘s missed call, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. A protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibits a team’s chance to win a game, the Rockets believe they have that and the league should allow the teams to replay the final 7:50 of the game (with the Rockets conveniently up by 15 at that point).

The Rockets prepared to file a protest of Tuesday’s loss to the Spurs, a person with knowledge of the team’s plans said, with an argument that will cite the James Harden dunk that did not count as an example of a “misapplication of rules.”

It will also cite subsequent errors in officials’ failing to grant a coaches’ challenge, though the primary argument is with points not being awarded following a made basket.

What’s not in question is that the referees missed the call on James Harden’s fourth-quarter dunk — it should have counted. After the game the officials, after reviewing the video, admitted as much.

In addition to the missed dunk, the Rockets also are arguing that coach Mike D’Antoni should have been allowed to challenge the play (another misapplication of a rule). The officials talked to D’Antoni for a handful of seconds, then moved away to debate the call itself — was it basket interference or something else — before settling on it being a missed shot with the ball out of bounds off Harden. D’Antoni said he was never given the chance to protest the call by the referees, after the game crew chief James Capers said D’Antoni did not protest the game within the required 30 seconds. Privately, some around the league question if D’Antoni actually told the officials he wanted to protest — he says he did, not everyone believes him.

Protests around the NBA are rarely upheld because the bar is incredibly high. A successful protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited a team’s chance to win a game. The Rockets argue that not giving Harden two points for a made basket qualifies as a misapplication of the rules, but others could argue it was just a missed call. There are a lot of those in every game (Russell Westbrook had a backcourt violation that was not called and became a Tyson Chandler dunk). 

This one play is not why the Rockets lost the game. Houston was up by 20 with 3:23 left in the third and by 10 with 3:53 left in the fourth but, as has followed a pattern with this team, could not hold the lead. Harden and Westbrook combined to shoot 17-of-68 on the night.

Because of that, and because there is 7:50 left in the game, it’s hard to imagine the league ruling to replay the end of the game. The Rockets likely will miss out on this.

But Houston — a team known in the league office for the deluge of referee complaints they file — is going to takes its best shot.

Former Suns coach Igor Kokoskov on Phoenix not drafting Luka Doncic: I sleep peacefully

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Mavericks star Luka Doncic looks is taking the NBA by storm at age 20.

Why did the Suns take Deandre Ayton No. 1 over Doncic – who went No. 3  – in last year’s NBA draft?

Phoenix’s coach was even Igor Kokoskov, who coached Doncic with the Slovenian national team.

Kokoskov, via Index, via Google Translate:

Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question because of a professional code, but when you have already asked me, I will tell you that I sleep peacefully and peaceably.

In other words: Kokoskov has no regrets about his input into the draft process. He’s hinting he wanted Doncic. (That’s easier to do after seeing how everything played out.)

Suns owner Robert Sarver reportedly pushed for Ayton, who played at nearby University of Arizona. Ayton looked like a reasonable choice at the time.

But Doncic’s ascent in Dallas leaves so much room for second-guessing. Maybe Kokoskov, who got fired after last season, would still be with the Suns if they drafted Doncic. Doncic would’ve done wonders for making Phoenix competitive last year – let alone beyond.

The Suns aren’t alone in facing these questions. The Kings are getting their share after drafting Marvin Bagley III No. 2.

Marcus Morris missed Knicks games, because his ‘huge for a 1-year-old’ son jumped on him to wake him

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Marcus Morris cares deeply about his role as a father.

Morris also missed the Knicks’ last two games with a neck injury.

Those statements are related.

Morris, Ian Begley of SNY:

“Every morning, he comes in the room and jumps on me. You know, I just got the bad batch of it that morning, so I’m good now,” Morris said.

He described his son as “huge for a 1-year-old.”

“I’ve just got to be ready,” Morris said with a smile. “He gets up at a certain time and I know he’s coming. This particular morning I think I was just in a deep sleep or something and he got me. But it happens. I’d rather him do that than stay in his room.”

Adorable!