Warriors loom over LeBron James’ legacy quest

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Losing in the NBA Finals has driven LeBron James mad in previous years.

In 2011, he infamously reminded his haters they’d face the same personal problems while he continued to enjoy the good life. In 2015, he openly debated whether he’d rather lose in the Finals or miss the playoffs entirely.

But this year, he calmly accepted his fate – his Cavaliers losing, 4-1, to a supercharged Warriors team that spent most of the postseason looking unbeatable.

“It’s just not my time,” LeBron said.

Will it ever be LeBron’s time again?

He’s 32. Golden State’s stars – Stephen Curry (29), Kevin Durant (28), Klay Thompson (27) and Draymond Green (27) – are all younger, and as long as ownership is willing to spend, the core can remain in tact.

“They don’t show any signs of slowing down,” LeBron said.

The last time LeBron got run like this in the Finals, he left the aging Heat to return to Cleveland, which had stocked up on assets through years in the lottery. Departing won’t be an option – this year, at least. The Cavs have LeBron locked up for one more season, and he obviously has am affinity for Northeast Ohio.

But these Warriors are a challenge unlike any other.

When LeBron lost to the Spurs in 2014, his final year in Miami, he was asked about matching up with San Antonio the following year.

“I don’t think it’s just the Spurs. It’s the whole league,” LeBron said. “The whole league continues to get better every single year.  Obviously, we would need to get better from every facet, every position.  It’s just how the league works.”

There was no such couching this year with Golden State, which LeBron called “one of the best playoff teams that this league has ever seen.”

“There’s going to be a lot of teams that’s trying to figure out ways to put personnel together to try and match that if they’re able to actually face them in the playoff series, both Eastern Conference and Western Conference,” LeBron said. “Because they’re built for – from my eyes, they’re built to last a few years.”

If a Warriors dynasty is just kicking into gear, that’d be tough timing for someone who is likely in the finals stages of his prime and is striving to surpass Michael Jordan. An ambition like that leaves little margin for error.

LeBron will never catch Jordan’s perfect 6-0 Finals record, a fact Jordan fans are quick to point out. But now LeBron (3-5 in the Finals) becomes just the fourth player – and first in decades – to lose five times in the title round.

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LeBron’s legacy is secure as an all-time great, especially considering his Finals competition. Jerry West (1-8) and Elgin Baylor (0-7) are comfortably in that class, and they have even worse Finals records.

But they’re also not in the Michael Jordan tier of excellence, a level LeBron could theoretically still reach.

Time is running out, though – even if it didn’t appear to be in these Finals

LeBron was again fantastic, becoming the first player to average a triple-double in the Finals (33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 10.0 assists). He shot 56.4% from the field, including 38.7% on 3-pointers.

Yet, it wasn’t close to enough.

The Cavs got outscored by just seven points in LeBron’s 212 minutes and by 27 points in the 28 minutes he sat. He somehow rested both not enough (tiring late in Game 3) and and way too much (Cleveland fell apart without him).

For the first time in the last three, maybe six,* years LeBron didn’t deserve Finals MVP. Durant outplayed him.

*I could go either way on LeBron and actual Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in 2014. LeBron – who won in 2012, 2013 and 2016 – deserved it in 2015 over Andre Iguodala.

The difference was defense. LeBron got roasted as the Cavaliers fell behind 2-0 in the series and picked up his intensity on that end only somewhat. Durant terrorized Cleveland with his length and basketball intelligence.

Of course, Durant shouldered a lesser load than LeBron while playing with so much more talent – making it easier to exert energy on both ends of the floor. But Durant out-produced LeBron this year and deserves credit for it.

That setup could remain in place for a while.

When will LeBron ever have to do less for his team to win a title? When will Durant ever have to do more?

“I have no reason to put my head down,” LeBron said. “I have no reason to look back at what I could have done or what I shouldn’t have done or what I could have done better for the team. I left everything I had out on the floor every single game for five games in this Finals, and you come up short.”

That’s a healthy attitude. It’s the attitude of someone secure in his place.

But it’s not the attitude of someone consumed with winning, the type of unhealthy obsession often necessary to win a championship.

And maybe LeBron has just matured beyond that point, much easier with three titles under his belt. He has a wife and kids and priorities outside basketball.

Earlier in the Finals, LeBron called the Warriors adding Durant “great.” Add his placid demeanor after the series, and it seemed LeBron was content because he realized the challenge – no matter how hard he fought it – was too great.

But before Game 5, LeBron hinted he hadn’t revealed his full true feelings about Durant joining Golden State.

Maybe, just maybe, the greatest player of this generation is still deeply driven to topple the greatest team of this generation.

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

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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
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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
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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.

 

Report: Lakers would have traded both first-round picks for Irving, Mitchell

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it,” Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said at media day, pulling back the curtain a little on his thinking of trading two first-round picks. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That tracks with the consistent messaging out of Los Angeles all summer: The Lakers would only trade the only two first-round picks they fully control for the rest of this decade (2027 and 2029) for a deal that made them a contender.

That meant landing Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on The Hoop Collective Podcast.

“I’ve been told that had the Lakers been able to acquire, Kyrie Irving, or the Lakers been able to acquire Donovan Mitchell, either of those players, the Lakers were willing and able to move both those [first-round] picks to do it.”

The problem for the Lakers is the market price for elite talent has moved beyond two first-round picks. The Jazz got three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) plus the rights to two pick swaps (2026 and 2028) in the Mitchell trade, not to mention three players: Lauri Markkanen (who they will try to trade for another pick), Collin Sexton, and Ochair Agbaji. The price for Kyrie Irving would have been at least as high, if the Nets really wanted to trade him.

The Lakers traded all of their young players and most of their picks to land Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, except for the ones they let walk away (Alex Caruso). Before he was judicious in making trades like he was this offseason, Pelinka made deals that backed him into this corner.

The Lakers likely could use both picks to acquire Buddy Hield and Myles Turner out of Indiana (sending Westbrook back), but that doesn’t make Los Angeles a contender (a playoff team, but not a title threat) and it messes with the plan to have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase a big name.

The Lakers you see in training camp are the Lakers you get. At least for now.