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Rare Air: LeBron James on cusp of passing Michael Jordan’s scoring mark

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CLEVELAND (AP) — A generation of kids wanted to be like Michael Jordan. They bought his red-and-black Nikes and sported his No. 23 Bulls jersey. They mimicked Jordan’s spin move and fadeaway jumper and even wagged their tongues the way he did on a flight to the rim.

While millions worshipped Jordan, only a handful entered his rarefied air.

LeBron James lives there.

Without a father in his life, James viewed Jordan as a role model and on Friday night the indomitable Cleveland Cavaliers star, playing at an MVP level in his 15th NBA season, likely will surpass a record held by a player he once admired “like a god.”

On Wednesday night in Charlotte, James equaled Jordan’s NBA mark by scoring in double digits in 866 consecutive games, an extraordinary streak of consistency and durability that may not end until James wants it to. No one else seemingly can stop him.

Once he scores 10 points against New Orleans, probably at some point in the first half Friday night, James will surpass Jordan’s record and add another check mark to his side in the greatest-player-of-all-time debate.

To put the streak in context, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is third at 787 games, followed by Karl Malone at 575. Among current players, James Harden is second to James with 257 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

James typically avoids talking about his accomplishments, saying that’s what he’ll do once he retires. But the double-digit scoring streak, which dates back to Jan. 5, 2007, and an eight-point game against Milwaukee in his fifth season, has turned him somewhat reflective.

“I’ve stayed available, obviously,” James said following a 41-point, 10-rebound, 8-assist performance in a win over the Hornets. “I haven’t played every game but for the most part I’ve played over 70 percent of my games throughout that journey. … It’s just another feat for me to be appreciative and humbled by what I’ve been able to do. And just knowing where I come from, I look at it and say, `Wow, I can’t believe I’m in this position,’ knowing where I come from.”

As a child being raised by a single mom, James found father figures in the coaches who helped him refine his game. There were others in Akron, Ohio, who protected the basketball prodigy and made sure he didn’t stray from a path toward greatness.

Then there was Jordan, whose blend of passion, skill and artistry made an indelible impression on a young James.

“I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike, just because of what he was able to accomplish,” James said last year after breaking Jordan’s playoff scoring record. “When you’re watching Michael Jordan, it’s almost like a god. So I didn’t think I could be Mike.”

And yet James has surpassed expectations and more than lived up to the “Chosen One” label, a tag he got in high school and had tattooed across his shoulders before turning pro.

One of the few coaches who worked with Jordan and James, Cavaliers assistant Larry Drew was asked to compare the two hardwood heroes.

“Oh man, that’s a tough one,” said Drew, filling in while Cleveland coach while Tyronn Lue is on medical leave. “Certainly Michael was as good of a finesse player as there was. You just never seen anything like LeBron with his size, his speed, his power. He’s something different. But the one thing that both guys do have in common, they’re really driven to win and to be the best.”

Watching James catch and overtake Jordan has been thrilling to his teammates, who are continually awed by a player who shows little signs of wear. James told The Associated Press earlier this week that he would vote for himself as MVP this season, and there’s not a player on Cleveland’s roster who would oppose his case.

James has excelled during perhaps the most challenging season of his career as the Cavs have been ravaged by injuries and overhauled with three major trades at the deadline.

J.R. Smith is savoring the chance to witness greatness.

“It’s pretty dope,” the forward said. “It seems like every game it’s something. When you’re up there with Mike, it’s a different level. You can actually sit there and tell your grandkids hopefully one day that you were part of that. … It’s kind of overwhelming at times.”

Jordan, the Hornets’ majority owner, didn’t attend Wednesday’s game, which ended with the hoop-savvy Charlotte crowd standing to salute and serenade James with chants of “M-V-P!”

It was a moment to set aside loyalty and honor a once-in-a-generation player.

“Everywhere we go he gets a standing ovation,” Smith said. “It’s like watching Michael Jackson on tour.”

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

DeMarcus Cousins on Warriors: “This was my nuclear bomb. My last resort.”

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A year before, DeMarcus Cousins was a lock max player, a guy the New Orleans Pelicans could not let get away. A guy with options. A guy about to make not just life-changing money but family generational changing money. DeMarcus Cousins was at his peak.

But on Jan. 30, everything changed. Cousins tore his Achilles tendon.

Come July 1, 2018, the phone was not ringing, team executives were not lined up at 12:01 to meet with Cousins and his agent. Crickets. There was nothing. The teams Cousins called were not making offers and were not interested — including the Pelicans.

So Cousins got in touch with Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. The rest is history.

All through free agency and his recovery, SHOWTIME Sports has been making a documentary — titled “THE RESURGENCE: DeMarcus Cousins” — that will air on the cable network at a date and time yet to be announced. They just released the video above (WARNING: NSFW language) and if the access and honesty they got in this clip is any indication, it is going to be must watch.

Check out the fantastic video above, courtesy Showtime. And be ready for when this hits the airwaves (or streaming, for most of us).

Five big takeaways from Kawhi Leonard trade to Toronto

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Everyone woke up Wednesday morning to an NBA bombshell — Kawhi Leonard being traded to the Toronto Raptors in a deal centered around DeMar DeRozan. That’s a lot to absorb before the first cup of coffee.

This was far from perfect but as good a deal as San Antonio was going to get. It’s not equal value, the Spurs wing defense just got a lot worse, but with other teams keeping their best assets out of trades the Spurs got a player who was an All-Star and All-NBA (second team) last season, one who keeps them relevant for a few years (until Gregg Popovich likely retires). This delays the impending rebuild a couple of years. And, they sent Leonard out of the West.

Here are my five big takeaways from the blockbuster trade:

1) The Toronto Raptors won this trade. This was a bold and smart move by the Raptors on multiple levels. While the Lakers, 76ers, Celtics and everyone else slow-played this trade — or only offered picks and young players for a rebuild the Spurs did not want to start yet — Raptors GM Masai Ujiri jumped in with both feet and gave the Spurs something they wanted in DeRozan, an All-Star player who keeps them in the playoffs and dangerous right now. That was enough.

There are two key reasons this trade works for the Raptors (it’s a solid double, if not a home run). First, they didn’t give up much outside DeRozan — just Jakob Poeltl (who did show promise in his two years in Toronto) and a top-20 protected pick in the down 2019 draft. Toronto got to keep OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam, the young group of players they are high on. If Leonard is healthy — something we do not know for sure, he could be slowed slightly and be merely good rather than transcendent — Leonard is an upgrade over DeRozan and the4 Raptors are a threat to the Celtics at the top of the East.

Second, now the Raptors have a season to try to both win a ring and win Leonard over. The ring may be a lot to ask, but if Leonard is playing like an MVP again a trip to the Finals is certainly not out of the question. And once there, anything can happen.

The attempts to win Leonard over long-term probably will fail, but the Raptors get to take their shot. Toronto is a city a lot of players love to visit, the Raptors have a large and passionate fan base (all across Canada, they are a national team), and the Raptors are going to win a lot of games. Toronto also has more money: The Raptors can offer Leonard a five-year, $189.6 million contract next summer, the most any other team can put on the table is a four-year, $140.6 million. ($140 million is a lot less than the $221 million the Spurs could have guaranteed.) The model is Paul George in Oklahoma City, but the difference is George was open to the idea of staying from the moment he stepped off the plane (where Thunder GM Sam Presti made sure there were a lot of Thunder fans to cheer and greet him). Leonard likely is not so open minded.

If Leonard bolts next summer, then the Raptors took their big swing and start a rebuild (that they have discussed internally in the past year). It’s not a massive setback.

2) Kawhi Leonard — and his uncle/management — did not get what they expected or wanted. Around the league, there is a lot of talk about Leonard’s Uncle Dennis/advisors wanting to build a marketing empire around the 27-year-old entering his prime. To get an idea of their plans, think about what LeBron James or Russell Westbrook have with their brands. The sense was Leonard’s team felt the small market of San Antonio and the team-first style of the Spurs were holding them back. (Leonard’s stoic personality is a bigger part of that problem, but we’ll table that discussion for now.) Plenty around the league think those close to Leonard fanned the flames of discontent surrounding the injury and treatment until it was a full-blown fire and Leonard decided he wanted out of town.

Leonard (and his camp) reportedly are not happy campers right now.

The Spurs will have no response but a sly smile (they took the best deal on the table for them). Offers were not going to improve, and the Spurs did now want the zoo of bringing Leonard into training camp.

Leonard is a free agent next summer and can go to the Lakers or Clippers (or Knicks or Sixers or any other team he wants). However, to get the max contract he wants Leonard will have to prove he’s healthy and back to his MVP-level ways — and that means suiting up and playing for the Raptors. Sit out another year — via hold out or with the quad injury — and no team is going to jump in with a max.

3) DeMar DeRozan may be pissed now, but he will come around. Leonard wasn’t the only player unhappy with the trade — DeRozan had been loyal to Toronto, didn’t even meet with other teams in 2016, was active in the community, and was told at Summer League he would not be traded. Then, wham.

DeRozan has every right to be angry. Then he will get over it — the Spurs are maybe the most welcoming organization in the league. The city of San Antonio will embrace him. Most importantly, Gregg Popovich will understand DeRozan and put him in spots he likes on the court, places he can do damage. DeRozan will get to the line, make passes (he’s become a quality playmaker) and — at least during the regular season — make the Spurs a challenge every night.

San Antonio — with DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge — will be the kings of the midrange jumper, although both are pretty efficient at it. The Spurs wing defense will be unimpressive, something a little disturbing in a conference with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and now LeBron James. San Antonio will be no threat to Golden State or Houston, but they will be relevant. DeRozan will come to enjoy it.

4) The Lakers will just wait this out… and be a little nervous. Clippers, too. On the one hand, we saw this movie last summer: The Lakers choose not to put their best young players into a trade to secure an elite player because they believed said star will come to them in free agency. Only he didn’t, the next summer decides to stay put in the Midwest — without even meeting with the Lakers — and the Los Angeles misses out.

On the other hand, Leonard to the Raptors feels different from Paul George to the Thunder — George was open to the idea of playing with Russell Westbrook and seeing what the experience was like. As noted above Leonard is not happy being sent north of the border. It’s early, but good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks he stays long term. Next summer Leonard likely will bolt, and while the list of options could expand beyond the two teams in Los Angeles, that pair remains at the forefront. (As noted before, while the Lakers are the consensus favorites to land him, I heard from sources around the league that is no lock. The Clippers are in play.)

For the Lakers, even if they miss out on Leonard next summer, things still line up well: They have cap space, LeBron, and the market most players be in. They will land someone.

Still, the Lakers have to be a little nervous that things change with Leonard over the course of next season. Maybe it’s the Raptors, or maybe he likes the East and the idea of playing with Kristaps Porzingis, or maybe a million things. It should make them a little nervous, because in the NBA crazy things happen.

5) Just a reminder, loyalty in the NBA is dead. Next time you want to complain about how players are not loyal to teams/cities anymore, remember this move. Just a week ago in Las Vegas, Raptors officials told DeRozan to ignore the rumors, he was not getting traded. This is a player who — where Vince Carter and others tanked/pushed their way out of the city — embraced all things Toronto. He was active in the community. He spoke openly of wanting to be a Raptor for life and the greatest Raptor of all time. He was the willing face of their franchise.

They traded him anyway.

It’s a cold, cold business. Teams treat players like assets, and more and more players are treating teams the same way. Loyalty is nearly forgotten, and rarely rewarded,

It’s just fans that pay.

Report: Boston nearing agreement to retain Marcus Smart

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When free agency began, a lot of us said that the restricted free agent market was going to be tough — not a lot of teams had cap space to start with, and those that did were not targeting players where the offer could be matched. Zach LaVine got a deal, but other name RFA were waiting, Clint Capela and Marcus Smart being the biggest names on the board.

We may be able to cross Smart off that list soon, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

That is in the range of what the Celtics had wanted to pay him from the start, around $12 million a season.

Smart expected more — north of $17 million a season — and was frustrated that no offers sheets came in that would force the Celtics to match. He reportedly was “hurt and disgusted” that the Celtics didn’t come in and recruit him or make a larger offer. Welcome to a tight market, the Celtics had leverage.

Smart is one of the top defensive two guards in the league, a switchable defender who can guard any perimeter position, all of which fits with Brad Stevens’ defensive system. He also brings a high motor — he generates steals and gets to loose balls. Offensively he’s a liability — teams can help off him, daring him to shoot — but when healthy the Celtics have the players to cover that up.

This looks like it will get done and be a fair deal for both sides.

Kawhi Leonard may not want to play in Toronto, but he will. For now.

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The moment it was reported that Kawhi Leonard was being traded to Toronto for a package based around DeMar DeRozan,  a second theme followed:

Leonard did not like this.

Leonard and his uncle/management team had tried to force their way to Los Angeles — in Las Vegas for Summer League I heard rumors about him wanting to be with either the Lakers or Clippers, depending on the source. (As with everything around Kawhi’s inexperienced management, there was no clear voice or vision, so there were a lot of conflicting rumors.) L.A. never happened because the Lakers think he will sign with them next summer, so they did not throw their best players into a trade — Brandon Ingram, in particular — while the Clippers didn’t have the assets to get a deal done. The Raptors jumped into that breach.

This has led to online speculation that Leonard will sit out in Toronto, saying he is injured, and try to force another trade.

Don’t bet on it.

Why? Because if he doesn’t play next season, even the Lakers would be very hesitant to jump in with a max contract offer next summer.

Leonard played in just nine games last season due to a quadriceps tendon issue, something that dates back to the season before that (he just played through it then). There was disagreement between doctors (and the sides) about whether this was a muscle or tendon issue, but the injury was real.

Right now, teams do not know how well he has responded to treatment, outside of second-hand reports. The physical Leonard has to undergo to complete this trade will be interesting.

If Leonard sits out all or even much of another season with the same injury, how healthy he would ever be must come into question. Even the Lakers and other teams that want him would have to be cautious about a four-year, $140.6 million contract (the max they can offer) to a guy who had missed a lot of the last two seasons.

To get where he wants to go and get paid, Leonard has to get on the court and play well. He has to look like Kawhi Leonard again, or something close to it.

He knows that, so he will be on the court in a Raptors uniform. If only for a year.