Cleveland vs. Golden State is rivalry the NBA needs right now

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Cleveland vs. Golden State is for more than just a battle for the Larry O’Brien trophy.

It’s a showdown of the two most popular players in the game, LeBron James and Stephen Curry. It’s a battle of styles, the more old-school isolation-heavy ball of Cleveland vs. the three-point shot and up-tempo game of the Warriors. It’s a battle about legacy. It’s a matchup of the two best teams in the NBA, two teams who dominated their conference playoffs to get here.

It’s a rivalry.

The best one the NBA has had in years — maybe the best one going in professional sports right now. It’s one played out on the biggest stage with three straight NBA Finals meetings, with the third installment of the trilogy starting Thursday night in Oakland. We love watching the players and storylines evolve over those years — this is drama on the “Game of Thrones” level.

That is good for the NBA.

However, when we head into next NBA season expecting a fourth Finals showdown between these teams, and maybe we get a fifth after that, is that good for the NBA? Or is that lack of competitiveness sucking the drama out of the postseason? Is this sense of inevitability good for the league?

Right now it’s working. LeBron has tried to deny there’s a rivalry, but Draymond Green knows better.

“It’s definitely fun, you know?” Green said earlier this season. “A team that you beat, that’s beat you – it’s definitely fun. I think, if you look at the last two years and this year, we’ve been the top two teams in the league each year. So, I look at it as a rivalry, and it’s definitely a fun game to play in.”

And fun to watch — two great teams going at it with contrasting styles and philosophies. Ratings should be sky high for this one.

The NBA used to be thick with rivalries: Bulls vs. Pistons (with the player rivalry Isiah Thomas vs. Michael Jordan), Bulls vs. Knicks, there was Phil Jackson vs. Pat Riley, and the ultimate Lakers vs. Celtics (which included Magic vs. Bird). That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Now? Not so much. And this is true across professional sports. The advent of free agency — which fans love, people are more into playing GM now than the games themselves — has torn down those walls. Johnny Damon can jump from the Red Sox to the Yankees and that’s just business. In the NBA, often players have known each other since AAU or USA Basketball events long before they get to the NBA, so while they go hard at each other on the court, off it there is a sense of fraternity. In the off-season, they all play and work out together in one of a handful of places in Los Angeles or Las Vegas.

That’s what makes the Cavaliers vs. Warriors different.

This is LeBron forcing a switch so Curry has to guard him. This is Green trying to get under LeBron’s skin but actually, LeBron gets under Green;s and forces a mistake that leads to a suspension. This is Andre Iguodala in LeBron’s face. It’s Kyrie Irving hitting the game winner over Curry in the 2016 Finals (and hitting the game winner last Christmas Day to complete a Cavaliers comeback). It’s the Warriors adding Kevin Durant to the mix.

These teams don’t like each other. Respect is there, but so is the passion needed for a great rivalry. It’s why we’re all excited to see the rubber match between these two powerhouses.

And when it’s over, we may be lined up for a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

In the West, the Warriors will re-sign Curry and Durant this summer, and every one of their four core players is still under age 30. It’s hard not to see them remaining the team to beat in the West — and maybe being unbeatable — for four more years. At least.

In the East, LeBron has been the dominant force leading his team to seven straight NBA Finals, and in his 14th season he is having arguably his best playoffs ever. He shows no signs of slowing down, and the team around him with Irving and Kevin Love can pick up as he fades.

Fans can complain, but both of these “superteams” were born of circumstances other teams can’t recreate (which is to say, there’s nothing for the league to do to “fix” this). For one, there’s not going to be another LeBron for a long, long time. With the Warriors, they built this team via the draft — they picked and developed Curry, Green, and Klay Thompson. They added Andre Iguodala as a free agent, but he’s complementary to the stars. As for Durant, it took a one-time giant spike in the salary cap thanks to a new television broadcast deal to create the space for Golden State to land him, another situation that is not going to be repeated (and the league added the “Designated Veteran Player” contract to the CBA because of it anyway).

These teams aren’t going away. It’s hard to picture something happening this summer that will lead anyone to say “that team can dethrone the Cavaliers/Warriors” next season. (Barring injury, of course.) Think of it this way: If the Boston Celtics have an ideal summer, what will we say about them heading into next season? “They can challenge Cleveland.” That’s it. Do everything right and maybe they can take a series six or seven games now.

The Cavaliers/Warriors rivalry will continue.

But if it remains such a dominant force that it sucks the drama out of the playoffs with its inevitability, that’s not good for the league. Yes, the NBA has always thrived when it’s biggest stars are on its biggest stage — we talk about the six times Michael Jordan won a title, not the seven times he lost in the Eastern Conference playoffs and couldn’t get there. But even in the Jordan era, there was a drama that seems lacking in this postseason. That’s not a good thing for the NBA, it’s broadcast partners rely on the playoffs for a lot of that revenue the league is getting.

However, we’ve got the drama we wanted now — Cavaliers vs. Warriors. LeBron vs. Curry. The two best teams in the NBA going at it for a third straight year.

We’ve got a real rivalry.

New Kings’ GM doesn’t change fact De’Aaron Fox expects max contract extension

De'Aaron Fox sprained ankle
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New Sacramento Kings general manager Monte McNair is just getting the photos of his family framed and settling into his office, but he’s made one critical decision already: Luke Walton will be back as Sacramento’s coach. McNair also decided he wants to see the Kings return to more of the up-tempo style of a couple of seasons ago (before Walton arrived). Looming after that is the 2020 NBA Draft, where the Kings have the No. 12 pick.

When free agency comes, the question becomes: Will the Sacramento Kings offer De'Aaron Fox a max contract extension?

The young point guard expects one, reports James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area.

League sources have confirmed to NBC Sports California that the Kings, under previous management, already had a discussion with Fox’s representation on an extension.

Depending on where the NBA’s final salary cap numbers come in, Fox is eligible for a five-year max money contract worth between $150-180 million. Don’t expect a discounted rate. He will ask for and likely get whatever the maximum is allowed under the collective bargaining agreement.

If the salary cap were to remain flat for two years (possible, but not probable), a five-year max extension to Fox’s rookie contract is $158 million. The number will likely be higher than that, and if Fox makes a huge leap and becomes an All-NBA player, it jumps up to nearly $190 million (not likely to happen, but not impossible).

Fox averaged 21.1 points and 6.8 assists per game last season, but fully healthy he stepped up his play in the bubble averaging 26.2 points a game on 50.4% shooting and dishing out 7.3 assists a game. He was by far the Kings’ best player.

In the bubble, the Kings seemed to lack an identity. What kind of team did they want to be? McNair has come in and decided that — this is going to be an uptempo, transition team. Fox would be at the heart of that plan.

McNair said at his introductory press conference he sees Fox as a cornerstone piece.

“De’Aaron is an incredible young talent,” McNair said. “I’ve loved to see what he’s done and what he’s improved on over the years and he’s got a very bright future ahead of him.”

If this team is going to get back to running more, Fox is as good a ball-handler and decision-maker in transition as the league has. The Kings need to pay to keep him happy, then get players to go around him that fit that style. Expect McNair to spend the next season evaluating and shifting the roster around to fit that style. The problem is the pressure of the playoffs — the Kings haven’t been in 14 years, one short of tying the Donald Sterling Clippers for the longest drought in league history. There is pressure from ownership to make the playoffs and start winning sooner rather than later. It will be a tough balancing act for McNair. Welcome to sitting in the big chair.

Deciding to pay Fox may be the easiest of his decisions.

 

LeBron James one win away from history: 10th NBA Finals apperance

Lakers star LeBron James
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ASSOCIATED PRESS — LeBron James can reach a 10th NBA Finals, done by only three greats of the game.

Anthony Davis is on the verge of his first.

The final step for the Los Angeles Lakers shapes up as the toughest.

They have to knock out the Denver Nuggets, who have been on the brink of dismissal from the bubble six times and every time refused to go.

“You can never be comfortable around this team,” Davis said. “They have been in this situation twice. We’ve been in the situation twice. But both teams are familiar with these situations, but this team is not going to go away.”

Game 5 is Saturday. The Lakers have ended both their series thus far in five games.

But the Nuggets were also down 3-1 against both Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers, fell far behind in Game 5, and then battled back to not only win the game but eventually the series.

No team had ever erased two 3-1 deficits in one postseason and now the Nuggets need to do it a third time. It’s a predicament they could have avoided, if they’d gotten one more defensive stop in Game 2 or given up a few less second-chance points in Game 4.

“These are all close games we’re playing,” guard Jamal Murray said. “Going to keep battling it out.”

Murray was sensational again in Game 4, though James slowed him enough down the stretch after taking on the defensive assignment to help the Lakers pull out a 114-108 victory.

One more win, and James ties NBA career scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for third on the career list with 10 NBA Finals appearances. Only Hall of Famers Bill Russell (12) and Sam Jones (11) of the Boston Celtics have gone to more.

It would be James’ first with the Lakers after five appearances in Cleveland and four in Miami, and the Lakers’ first trip to the finals since winning the last of their 16 championships in 2010.

James and Davis have been the unquestioned catalysts of this run, and they’re good strong support from some playoff-tested veterans. Dwight Howard had 12 points and 11 rebounds Thursday in his first start of this postseason, helping send Los Angeles to its overwhelming 25-6 advantage in second-chance points.

Rajon Rondo contributed 11 points and moved into eighth place on the career list with seven more assists.

“In the postseason, every possession is so important,” James said. “When you can have guys that have been in the moments and can understand and also be able to make adjustments on the fly, and know that you can count on them down the stretch, it just makes the team and you individually feel so much more confident in the outcome.”

The younger Nuggets don’t have those type of veterans, but they have the experience of this historic postseason run that could have ended on Aug. 25, the night of Game 5 against Utah. A month later, they are still at Disney World, still trying to prove that hope is not lost until four games are.

“I think people out there probably think this is exactly where we want them. It’s not. We would much rather be up 3-1, but it is what it is. We put ourselves in this position,” Denver coach Michael Malone said.

“Our team has shown tremendous resiliency and grit in getting out of these before. I have no doubt that tomorrow night we’ll bring that same fight to the game and hopefully we can keep this series alive.”

If they do, Game 6 would be Monday night. If not, the Lakers will be preparing to face Miami, in its first appearance since James left in 2014, or the Celtics, their greatest rival they could tie with a 17th NBA title.

The Lakers won’t think about any of that until the Nuggets are finally gone.

“Like I said last game, we’ve got to put them away,” Davis said. “They are going to continue to fight, no matter what the score is, no matter what the situation is. We just have to make sure we counter everything they do.”

Report: Mutual interest in Cavaliers keeping Tristan Thompson

Tristan Thompson
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Tristan Thompson has played every one of his nine NBA seasons in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform.

There have been questions about where the free-agent big man will play his 10th season. The Cavaliers traded for Andre Drummond to become their starting five, limiting both Thompson’s role and the money Cleveland would spend for the backup center role.

There is still “mutual interest” in a return, Cavs GM Koby Altman told Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“I think it’s fair to say there’s mutual interest for sure,” general manager Koby Altman said about the possibility of re-signing Thompson. “He’s been with this franchise his entire career since we drafted him. He’s won a championship here. Obviously, he means a lot to the players on the team right now, but it has to make sense. There are some events coming up — the draft, free agency — where we have to see if it makes sense for him. He’s earned the right to be an unrestricted free agent and explore opportunities at this point in his career. So, we’ll see.”

Tristan Thompson, 30, has battled nagging injuries in recent seasons but started most of the Cavaliers’ games before the shut down of the league last season, stayed healthy, and averaged 12 points and 10.1 rebounds a game playing 30 minutes a night.

How much of a market there will be for Thompson remains to be seen, especially in uncertain financial times around the league, but it will not be anywhere near the $18.5 million he made this season. He brings rebounding, defense, and a veteran presence to a team, but in general teams are not spending on the center spot right now, seeing that as a mercenary position where they can get a solid player at a cheap price. Thompson may have other suitors offering a larger role than Cleveland can, but the money is not likely to be much different.

Thompson’s camp asked for a trade at the deadline this past season (Cleveland couldn’t find a deal it liked), but when it comes time to decide this offseason he may want to stay with the organization he knows not a new one, if the money is the same. It’s going to be an interesting offseason for Thompson and the Cavaliers.

 

Bam Adebayo: “I played like s***… I’ll put that game on me.”

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The Miami Heat were one half of basketball away from the NBA Finals when a desperate Boston team cranked up its defensive intensity, started attacking the rim, and started playing at a level Miami didn’t match. The Celtics dominated the final 24 minutes of Game 5, forcing a Game 6 and keeping the Heat out of the Finals for now.

Bam Adebayo took the blame for the Heat loss. Via Manny Navarro of The Athletic.

“I played like s***. Bottom line: I can’t. I’ll put that game on me. It’s not my teammates’ fault. It’s not my coaches’ fault. It’s me. I missed too many shots I should have made… I wasn’t being the defensive anchor I should’ve been. I don’t think I was communicating fast enough. I feel like I was a step behind today. I wasn’t a difference-maker today. I didn’t get us into fast enough triggers. That’s on me.”

Game 5 was not Adebayo’s best outing: 13 points, eight rebounds, and Boston did a better job with its scheme pulling him away from the basket to defend smaller players on the perimeter, opening up the paint. Adebayo and the Heat as a whole struggled to slow the Celtics’ pick-and-roll actions, and Boston has figured out how to play against Miami’s zone (so the Heat have gone away from it).

“It’s not (Adebayo’s fault). It’s on everybody,” Jimmy Butler said after the game. “He does so much for us that it can feel like that at times but it’s definitely not on him. It’s on us as a whole. We all understand that because nobody was playing the way that we are supposed to play; the way that we have to play in order for us to win, nobody. And for him to say that, I respect it. I love him for it. But he can’t do it by himself. We’ve got to be there with him.”

Bam Adebayo was wearing a sleeve over his left arm, where he aggravated a wrist injury at the end of Game 4. Both Adebayo and coach Erik Spoelstra said that was nothing and not what led to his off night.

Miami needs a lot of things to go differently in Game 6: It needs to start hitting its threes again (19.4% from beyond the arc in Game 5, and below 30% from deep in each of the last three games). Miami has to take care of the ball and it has to get back in transition defense — Boston ran right past the Heat in the second half and got a lot of easy transition buckets. Mostly, however, it comes back to Miami shooters hitting more of their threes — the Heat halfcourt offense needs that.

The Game 5 loss was not on Adebayo. But he can be part of the solution.