LeBron James alters face of NBA again, bets he can add to legacy in Los Angeles


It was a Tweet of a press release, but it felt a lot like the legendary Michael Jordan “I’m back” fax.

LeBron James changed the landscape of the NBA in just one sentence.

What that sentence brings for the NBA is the kind of drama the league thrives on — the game’s biggest star and best player has planted his flag in Los Angeles. Fans will love it or hate it, but they will not be shy about expressing how they feel. Debate will rage.

LeBron has chosen to play for the NBA’s biggest brand in its most glamorous market — that comes with pressure, and hard questions. Can the combined drawing power of playing with LeBron and playing for the Lakers in Los Angeles draw in another star or two and rebuild the Lakers into a contender? And if so, how fast? What happens if they fall short?

LeBron has bet part of his legacy that he can hang a banner — or banners — in Staples Center.

He has bet he can lead a proud franchise back to the mountaintop, despite the fact that the league’s Mt. Everest resides less than 400 miles to the north. With the Lakers, you are not judged by trips to the conference finals or even making the Finals eight years in a row — it’s titles or bust. The Lakers don’t hang division/conference championship banners. It only hoists the kind LeBron wants.

It was the Golden State Warriors that has kept LeBron from more titles in recent years, and he knew he needed a new home and a new approach to beat them.

He has signed a four-year contract (he can opt out after three) — he never did that for the Cavaliers. In Cleveland, it was a series of one-year contracts, and even when he brought the first title to that city in more than five decades in 2016 he only signed a two-year deal. LeBron never fully trusted Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers organization.

He does trust Magic Johnson. He does trust owner Jeanie Buss. He trusts that, in the mold of the late Jerry Buss, they will do what it takes and spend whatever is needed to win. LeBron has bet big on the Lakers. And they on him.

LeBron’s decision has a lot of ramifications around the NBA.

The West — which already has Golden State and Houston, the two best teams in the NBA last season, plus teams on the rise such as Utah and Minnesota — is about to become a nightly bloodbath. Think of it this way: Even the worst team in the West last season, the Phoenix Suns, has gotten considerably better this off-season already. LeBron has walked into a nightly challenge — something he’s used to, his teams always have a target on their back. But the level of competition is about to jump.

In the East, Brad Stevens and the Celtics’ brass are going to open the good single malt scotch bottle tonight and enjoy a toast. The man who has dominated the East and represented the conference in the Finals for eight consecutive years is out of the picture. Sure, Philadelphia and others are not just going to roll over, but the road to the finals just got a lot less congested.

Another impact of LeBron’s decision: As if Los Angeles was not enough of a destination for players, it just became moreso.

Players are going to want to flock to the Lakers. Even more than normal. Los Angeles and its brand (not to mention good weather, nightlife, connections to Hollywood) have always been a draw for free agents. That just got multiplied by 23. While the Lakers are rounding out the roster (with one-year contracts, to keep flexibility for next summer) and bringing in some veterans to help the young core grow up and win faster, other players are clamoring to get to Los Angeles. Perform well in that market on that stage, and when free agency comes around the next time players values will be higher. Players around the league locked down with contracts are asking their agents to arrange trades to Los Angeles now.

That includes Kawhi Leonard — and LeBron’s early decision impacts that, too. If LeBron was hesitating, it gave the Spurs some leverage with the Lakers (“if you want to be sure to get LeBron, you’ve got to get Kawhi, and we need a better offer”). LeBron has jumped in with both feet. The Lakers won free agency. For the Spurs the big picture doesn’t change, they can play it slow until they get an offer they really want. They can try to squeeze the 76ers for leverage. But the Lakers landed the big fish, they are not going to make any panic moves now.

This move is a huge gamble for LeBron on two fronts, but both ultimately tied to his legacy.

He’s betting he can build a title team up in Los Angeles — something never easy to do, despite the advantages of Los Angeles. LeBron knows that him alone plus the existing Lakers’ core — Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle, etc. — is at best the three seed in the West, probably more like a four/five seed, with a second-round ceiling. LeBron wants rings, he wants a banner at Staples Center and his jersey retired there with the other greats. LeBron has done the “carry an inferior team” thing, he’s past the point in his career where he wants to keep doing it. He’s banking that both role players — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who shares an agent with LeBron), Lance Stephenson, and JaVale McGee have already come on board — and another superstar or two will join him in L.A. Maybe not immediately this summer, but that it will happen. Sooner rather than later.

LeBron’s biggest bet is possibly tarnishing his legacy itself.

Wilt Chamberlain came to the Lakers and won a ring. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forced his way to Los Angeles via trade, and he won rings and MVPs. Shaquille O’Neal came to the Lakers and won rings. Their legends and stars grew because they were Lakers.

That’s the bar. Making the Lakers into a threat to the Warriors that just can’t get over the hump the next four or five years is not good enough. Win a title or two and LeBron adds to his legacy as one of the greats the game has ever seen (a legacy that is now secure, the only question is just how high people ultimately rank him). He can grow his brand and his star.

Fall short and that will stain his legacy. Not indelibly, but when the comparisons come to Kobe Bryant and the other Lakers/NBA greats, the rings argument will come up. Fair or not. That is life in Los Angeles.

LeBron believes he is ready for it.

He’s bet a lot that he’s right.

Denver keeps executing under pressure, Gordon and Brown spark win to take command of series


MIAMI — The Nuggets just kept executing.

Nikola Jokić gets sent to the bench with five fouls — after Bam Adebayo earned an Oscar nomination drawing it — and it feels like the game was about to turn with the crowd rocking and the Nuggets lead down to 10. Jokić returned after 5:16 of game time and the Nuggets are still up nine. Without the two-time MVP, the Nuggets just kept executing their offense.

The Heat played their most physical, intense defense of the Finals, selling out to slow Jamal Murray in particular and not letting him score 30+ again. The Nuggets just executed their offense, and Murray finished with 12 assists without one turnover while others stepped up — led by Aaron Gordon with a game-high 27 and Bruce Brown with 21 points off the bench, including a critical step-back 3 in the fourth.

“When he did a step-back three, I wanted to punch him, but when he made it, I was so happy,” Jokić said.

It was like that all game long. Whenever Miami would make a run — the kind of stretch that became an avalanche and overwhelmed Boston and Milwaukee — Denver would just get the ball to Jokić, or Murray would draw the defense and kick to an open shooter, and the Nuggets executed their offense and got a bucket. They calmed things down, they didn’t contribute to their own demise.

It was championship-level execution from the Nuggets as they closed the game on a 17-7 run. The Nuggets were doing to the Heat in Miami what the Heat had done to every other team they faced this postseason.

Denver won Game 4 108-92, sweeping the two games in Miami (both by double digits), and now have a commanding 3-1 NBA Finals lead.

Game 5 is Monday night in Denver and it may feel more like a coronation than a basketball game.

Miami played hard. The Heat came out with their plan, they attacked the rim and did get 46 points in the paint. They outscored the Nuggets in the paint.

But facing Denver’s elite offense, Miami needs more points and the path to that is knocking down their 3s — Miami was 8-of-25, 32%. Denver was 14-of-28 (50%) from beyond the arc.

Early on this felt like it could be a Heat night. The game was a rock fight from the opening tip, with both teams playing intense defense and missing shots they have hit much of the series. However, Denver appeared comfortable in that style and pushed their lead out to seven. Then Jimmy Butler scored seven points in a 10-2 Heat run to end the quarter and it was 21-20 Miami after one.

The start of the second quarter would prove to be foreshadowing of the critical stretch of the fourth quarter.

The Nuggets were +1 in non-Jokić minutes to start the second thanks to eight points from Gordon in that stretch. Gordon stretched that out to 16 in the quarter and helped the Nuggets lead by four at the half — 55-51 — in a game that continued to be played in the Heat’s preferred style. Jokić had 16 points at the half but just two assists.

Denver started the third playing maybe their best basketball of the series and looking to blow the game open, getting the lead up to 13. But then came a stretch of sloppy basketball that let the Heat get the lead down to six and hang around the game. Things were getting intense…

Then came a several-minute break to check a bent rim and backboard that were at an angle. They were pulled there by a Bam Adebayo missed dunk (he missed a lot of bunnies this game), a problem noticed by Kyle Lowry. Jokić tried to hang on the rim to fix it, but it took a guy in a suit going up a ladder with a level and some tools.

Soon after Jokić to the bench with 9:24 left in the game and it felt like the entire Finals were going to turn.

The Nuggets just kept executing. Nothing changed.

“Every time we felt like we got it to six or eight, they were able to push it to 12,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the night. “That was certainly a frustrating part of the game. Brown was a big part of — some of his random drives and plays in the middle of the paint when you’re expecting it to be Murray or somebody else.”

Those plays have the Nuggets one win away from the franchise’s first NBA title.

Nuggets reportedly trade draft picks with Thunder to help keep title window open


The Denver Nuggets are just two wins from the franchise’s first NBA championship.

While Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray are trying to pick-and-roll their way to those wins, the Nuggets front office has made a trade to try and keep their title window open. The Nuggets are trading their 2029 first-round pick (protected) to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 37 pick in this June’s NBA Draft and the worst of the Thunder’s 2024-first round picks, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Nuggets now control the No. 37 and 40 picks in the 2023 NBA Draft, plus this additional 2024 pick. The Nuggets will try to use this 2024 first-round pick to move into the first round of this year’s draft, reports Mike Singer of the Denver Post. (Denver’s first-round pick at No. 27 belongs to Charlotte through a series of trades.)

A first-round pick and some high second-round picks allows Nuggets GM Calvin Booth to bring in several low-priced rookies who can potentially be part of the roster and rotation, freeing up money to keep an expensive core of Jokic, Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and the rest. The hope is to find another Christian Braun at the back of the first round who can contribute as a rookie.

With Jokić, Murray, Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon all locked in on big deals for the next two seasons after this, the challenge for the Nuggets is keeping quality rotation players around them to help them compete for a title without going deeper into the tax than ownership wants. Jeff Green is a free agent this summer and Bruce Brown has a $6.8 million player option that he will certainly opt out of (he will get an offer for more than $10 million a season). The Nuggets already are $7 million into the luxury tax (via Spotrac) and are looking for a way to keep below the second tax apron, making bringing those key players back a challenge.

Hence the trade, as the Nuggets look for ways to fill out their rotation with quality, but affordable, players. Good drafting — like Braun — is a way.

What does OKC get out of this? They have more first-round draft picks than they can use in the coming few years, this spreads a pick out to 2029, which they can use then or trade, depending on their needs at the time.

Heat’s Tyler Herro remains out for Game 4. Will he play in Finals?


MIAMI — With Tyler Herro not cleared to play in Game 3 of the NBA Finals and Game 4 just 48 hours later, it should be no surprise that we won’t see Herro on Friday night.

Herro is officially listed as out for Game 4. He has been out since April 16 with a severe hand fracture suffered in the first game against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Herro went through a brief part of the public practice/shootaround in front of the media Thursday but didn’t speak to the press. Spoelstra said Herro has not yet been cleared for a game.

“This is just part of the process,” Erik Spoelstra said. “You have to go through stages. First part of it was just shooting, then movement, then contact versus coaches, and then the next level of contact in practice. He has not been cleared for a game, and he is still not cleared yet.”

Even if Herro were cleared for later in the series — and the Heat players and coaches say to a man he is putting in the work — how much of a role could he play at this point? While on paper he provides shooting and shot creation Miami needs this series (although he would be a target on defense), he hasn’t played in a game for nearly two months and Spoelstra can’t just throw him into the highest level of basketball in the world mid-series. Maybe he could get in a few non-Jokić minutes off the bench, but it’s a big ask for anything more than that. And maybe it’s too big an ask for even that.

Listening to Spoelstra’s tone, I wouldn’t expect to see Herro in this series.

And this summer, don’t be surprised when Herro’s name comes up in a lot of trade rumors.

Rumor: Suns could make run at James Harden this summer


James Harden is widely expected to opt out of the $35.6 million he is owed for next season because, even if you acknowledge he is not MVP-level Harden anymore, he’s worth more than that in the NBA marketplace. At least $10 million more a season. Harden is reportedly “torn” between returning to Philadelphia or going back home to Houston (the sources NBC Sports talks to around the league have Houston as the frontrunner).

Maybe Phoenix can enter the conversation. There had been talk the Suns might make another big swing this offseason, then came this from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne appearing on ESPNLA Radio (hat tip Hoopshype):

“I want you to keep your eye on James Harden [going to Phoenix]. I don’t want to report anything, but that was in the wind for the past month or so. Everybody thinks it’s Philly or Houston, but I don’t know, there have been discussions in the wind.”

Interesting. The smart money should still be bet on Houston. Phoenix is a crazy longshot because the Suns don’t have the cap space to sign Harden outright at market value.

The only way the Suns could make a direct trade work is to convince Harden to do an opt-in and trade, where he picks up that $35.6 million and the Suns extend him off that, because if he opts out — as expected — then any sign-and-trade hardcaps the Suns. With Harden, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker on the books, a hard-capped Suns team would have to round out the roster with minimum contract guys. They would have no depth.

Also, who are the Suns sending back to Philadelphia in that deal? The 76ers have no interest in Deandre Ayton, Philly is pretty set at center with the MVP. That means getting a third team involved, one that wants Ayton, and will send players back to the 76ers they want. It gets very complicated very fast. Or, can Phoenix pick up Chris Paul‘s $30.8 million for this season and do a Harden for CP3 swap? Good luck selling that.

No doubt the Suns, with aggressive new owner Mat Ishbia, want to make another bold move or two this summer, but pulling off a James Harden deal would be challenging. To put it politely.

And Harden probably wants to go home to Houston anyway.