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

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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.

 

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.

Klay Thompson: ‘That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.’

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Stephen Curry wants to go to Tokyo and play for Team USA next summer. So does Draymond Green.

How about three Warriors?

If Klay Thompson is healthy, he wants to play in the Olympics next summer he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

“I would love to play (for) Team USA,” Thompson said. “That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.”

The biggest question for Thompson’s candidacy will be health. He is expected to be out until at least after the All-Star break recovering from the ACL he tore during the Finals last season. He could miss all of next season. That said, if he is healthy he would be a perfect fit for the international game — he is a dangerous three-point shooter, can handle the ball when needed, and is an outstanding perimeter defender. Team USA could use guys like that.

It won’t just be the big-name Warriors players who will want to step up next summer.

After USA Basketball finished seventh at this summer’s World Cup in China — due mostly to numerous top players choosing not to play for their nation this summer — it was expected that a wave of elite players will sign up for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Players are doing this less because revenge or re-establishing the USA’s basketball dominance — although expect that to be the narrative they pitch — and more about timing. FIBA, in its “infinite wisdom,” decided to move the World Cup from its usual spot, which would have been 2018, to 2019. Playing for USA Basketball is a 6-8 week summer commitment, and now the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years. That left a lot of elite NBA players — and not just for Team USA — looking at the calendar and feeling they had to choose one or the other. And for American players, the Olympics will almost always win that fight.

USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said he is going to remember who was willing to make the sacrifice to come this summer when it comes time to choosing an Olympic team. That may happen with a couple of roster spots, but he’s not turning elite talent away, either.

And all three of those Warriors would be the kind of elite players Team USA will want in Tokyo. If Thompson is healthy enough to go, expect him to pack his bags for Tokyo.