LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry: More than meets the eye

18 Comments

source:

The temptation here is to paint these NBA Finals as the legendary, experienced player against the upstart underdog.

LeBron James is legendary — whatever happens in these finals and future ones, he will go down as one of the greats to play the game. He is experienced, this being his fifth consecutive Finals. He is as physically gifted a player as the NBA has ever seen, but one who also has an incredibly high basketball IQ. His stardom was pegged and followed by the time he was a high school sophomore.

Stephen Curry was an underdog — the skinny shooter couldn’t get big time colleges (or even a lot of mid-majors) interested in him, so he decided to go to Davidson. He led that school to the best seasons in program history. He entered the NBA Draft as an underdog, pegged by many as just a shooter he fell to seventh before being picked up. But teams underestimated his will to get better, for example how good a ball handler he would become. He’s a guy fans relate to because he wasn’t given superlative physical gifts, he had to work for it — he’s how many fans like to see themselves.

But that is just the surface of these two players. Just the part of the iceberg you can see.

This pairing is much, much more than that. Both players are much more than that.

Which is why they are at the heart of what makes this a compelling NBA Finals.

These men are more than just their simple caricatures.

If you paint LeBron as the guy pre-ordained for greatness, as the Goliath in this situation, you overlook his difficult upbringing. More than one talented young man got lost on a road far less bumpy, and with far fewer turns, than the one LeBron had growing up the son of a single mother in lower income areas of Akron.

If you paint Curry as the underdog who overcame incredible odds, you overlook that his father was an NBA player. Curry guy who grew up comfortable and around the best in the game. He had the advantage of that privilege.

LeBron certainly had advantages as he grew into an NBA player — only Wilt Chamberlain was this much more physically gifted than his peers. Curry certainly had rough times and struggles that he had to work hard to overcome. The caricatures of these men are not entirely wrong.

But they are much more than first brush stroke.

They also are the two most popular players in the NBA right now.

There are a lot of ways to measure the popularity of a player. There’s how many All-Star Game votes he gets, for one. Or, you can judge by jersey sales because those are fans willing to plunk down the money to put a guys name on their back.

However you try to get there, you end up in the same place: LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

They were 1-2 in All-Star vote getting this season. And they are 1-2 in jersey sales.

LeBron has been at the top for a while, Curry is new to all this (but handles it in stride, like you would expect of the son of a former NBA player). They are both good in interviews and let the public have glimpses into their families and lives, humanizing them as more than just a name on your fantasy roster.

Fans love them for all of it.

They also are arguably the two toughest players to guard in the league — but they dominate the game in very different ways.

LeBron can beat defenders almost any way he wants, drive past bigger ones on the perimeter or back down smaller ones into the post. That (and key injuries to teammates) is why he has worked much more in isolation these playoffs. His combination of size and speed — along with a steady jumper — allow him to get his shot even when the help defender comes. However, when the defense rotates his passes will find the right open man.

Curry has smooth handles that can create just a little bit of daylight against even the best defender — and that’s all he needs to get off the prettiest shot in the game. Curry is especially dangerous because he can work with the ball or be just as dangerous (and draw defenders) working off it, on cuts and screens. He rarely works in isolation, he’s a much better fit in a modern offense using ball screens to create space. Plus, he also is a gifted passer who will find the open man.

One more thing LeBron and Curry have in common: They are seen as the saviors of long-suffering fan bases.

The last time the Golden State Warriors won an NBA title was 40 years ago, led by Rick Barry. The Warriors have had some of the loudest and most loyal fans in the league — this team went through a couple of decades of terrible ownership prior to the current group buying the team, yet the fans continued to show up. Warriors fans stuck with their team through years of rough times.

The last time any team won any title in Northeast Ohio Lyndon B. Johnson was president and was talking about the just-released Warren Report on the assassination of President Kennedy. “Dr. Strangelove” had just entered the theaters. Bob Dylan was just becoming popular as a singer/songwriter. It has been more than half a century since a title came to the greater Cleveland area — which has always been a special burden for LeBron.

Of course, basketball remains a team sport — and the better team will hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in a couple weeks. It’s not simply LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry, it’s the ability of teammates to help defend those two. The gravity of LeBron and Curry to draw defenders opens up things for their teammates, the question is which teammates are knocking down open shots and making plays while the defenses zero in on those stars.

But it is LeBron vs. Curry that will capture the nation’s imagination and attention for a couple weeks. It’s those two who we know will give us some highlight plays. They are the faces of their franchises.

This will go down as the LeBron vs. Curry NBA Finals. The only question is which one will get the Finals MVP Award.

 

Report: Celtics reach out to former assistant Larranaga about joining Mazzulla’s staff

0 Comments

The Boston Celtics are reportedly looking for a veteran assistant to put on the bench next to 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla, the man thrust into the head coach’s chair for a title contender in the wake of Ime Udoka’s suspension.

Who better than a guy who spent nine years on the Celtics’ bench? Boston reached out to Jay Larranaga, currently on the Clippers bench, about returning to the East Coast, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Clippers had no turnover on Tyronn Lue’s staff heading into this season. Mazzulla has become a trusted member of the Clippers staff, working a lot with the big me on the roster. However, if the Celtics back up the Brink’s Truck, the Clippers will not stand in his way if he wants to leave. It’s a question of comfort level, lifestyle, and of course money for Larranaga.

The Celtics made Mazzulla their interim head coach after an investigation found a “volume of violations” of team policy by Udoka, who had an improper relationship with a team staff member. So far the Celtics and Udoka have been able to keep the details of what happened under wraps, but league sources described the situation to NBC Sports as “ugly” and “messy,” especially if/when those details do find their way to the public.

For Celtics players, just getting back on the court, practicing Tuesday and focusing on basketball — not the turmoil around the franchise — was a good thing.

“Once we got out on the court, it was just nice to get back out the court and review our defense and to talk about offense and doing what we do,” Al Horford told the Associated Press. “It’s a good thing to just play basketball. That’s what we’re here for. It’s important to just start this thing back up again.”

Getting another coach on the bench will be important for the Celtics as well.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

0 Comments

The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
0 Comments

Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
0 Comments

In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.