LeBron James’ second Cavaliers experience ultimate example of player power

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Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s letter when LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010 has become infamous for its existence more than its content, which understates the extremeness of Gilbert’s words.

Gilbert called LeBron’s decision a “cowardly betrayal,” “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal,” “shocking act of disloyalty” and “heartless and callous action.” Gilbert wrote, “Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.” And then Gilbert added LeBron’s choice “sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And ‘who’ we would want them to grow-up to become.”

This was not merely “five great years and one bad night,” as Gilbert tried to spin it. Gilbert defended The Letter as recently as 2014, and it stayed on the Cavs’ website until later that year. The owner reportedly even refused to say LeBron’s name in meetings for years after The Decision.

The significance of even just The Letter wasn’t lost on LeBron – the deeply personal attacks, the racist tones, the lingering effect. It seemed LeBron and Gilbert would never reconcile. Those close to LeBron advocated against it.

Yet, LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2014.

“How could LeBron play for that man again?” was a common response to the stunning move. But that outlook was misguided.

LeBron didn’t succumb to Gilbert. LeBron used the Cavaliers for four years. He demanded the world from Gilbert and got it. Now, with the Cavs depleted, LeBron is leaving for the Lakers.

LeBron’s four-year run in Cleveland proved his clout.

In order to return, LeBron demanded unconditional spending, and Gilbert obliged. The Cavaliers opened max cap space to sign LeBron in 2014 then paid the luxury tax the same season – overcoming a salary-cap system designed to limit such a rapid rise in payroll. The Cavs ranked second in team salary that year then first the next three, massive luxury-tax bills accompany.

Cleveland traded young players and draft picks for veterans like Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver. When players like Smith and Tristan Thompson – who had other leverage but were also represented by LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul – hit free agency, they got lucrative new contracts. The Cavaliers put LeBron confidante Randy Mims on payroll as executive administrator of player programs and logistics.

Now, the Cavs face an ugly cap situation and already traded a top-10-protected future first-rounder. No. 8 pick Collin Sexton is a nice addition, but overall, this roster stinks sans LeBron and has narrow pathways to improvement.

While he was demanding the Cavaliers ransack themselves long-term, LeBron was getting everything he wanted short-term.

He completed a personally rewarding mission by winning the 2016 title, ending Cleveland’s championship drought. That legacy-altering title entrenched him deeper in the greatest-of-all-time discussion with Michael Jordan. LeBron’s conference-title streak reached eight seasons. He was even better positioned for his philanthropy. And, with those short-term contracts, he cleared the way for a smooth exit as soon as he was ready to depart.

Gilbert might have grumbled privately about the high costs, tangible and intangible, of employing LeBron. And LeBron made clear how little respect he held for the owner.

But Gilbert repeatedly obliged LeBron’s demands (and deserves more credit for doing so). After all, LeBron’s successes were mostly Gilbert’s and the Cavs’ successes, too. Gilbert owns the Cavaliers’ 2016 Larry O’Brien Trophy, and that championship belongs to all of Cleveland.

LeBron tinkered with exerting this type of leverage in Miami, grumbling on the way out the door about Heat owner Micky Arison’s thriftiness. But by then, it was too late to shape the Heat.

Gilbert felt the full brunt of LeBron’s power from the moment the superstar even considered returning – then thanked him for the experience when LeBron left.

Now, LeBron moves to the Lakers, who – like the Cavaliers in 2014 – have spent years acquiring young assets. Los Angeles has Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and all its future first-round picks. Soon, the Lakers will probably turn those pieces into veterans who can help LeBron win before his prime expires. The Cavs’ pathway to maintaining contender status, even with LeBron, wasn’t nearly as smooth.

As Cleveland provided genuine homecoming warmth and a platform to market that narrative, Los Angeles will serve as a stage for LeBron’s show-business endeavors. LeBron is playing where his interests are best-met, and teams are more than willing to help. It just happens to be the Lakers’ turn.

LeBron’s meltdown on the bench after regulation of Game 1 of the NBA Finals will play as the lasting image of his final season in Cleveland, but the lasting image of his departure came more than a month before he agreed to terms with the Lakers. The Cavaliers had just won another Eastern Conference title, and Gilbert was embracing his players as they passed. LeBron brushed by with a stunted handshake:

Eight years ago, Gilbert belittled LeBron. For the last four years, they truly partnered as no owner and player ever had.

It’s unlikely either admits to how badly they needed the other, but they each brought plenty to the table. Gilbert gave LeBron access to Cleveland, a city the superstar wanted to reclaim, and fronted the money to build the entire endeavor. LeBron provided generational basketball talent and publicity.

Together, they won a championship, claimed four conference titles and built on their prestige.

This is usually the domain of billionaire owners. They built the league for themselves to run it. The benefits Gilbert received over the last four years are completely normal.

LeBron reaping his share is unique and a testament to his awesomeness. He got nearly everything he could have asked for from the Cavaliers.

Now – in a reverse of teams that drop or trade stars when their time has run out – LeBron is wielding his power and keeping it moving.

Kevin Durant, JaMychal Green have technical fouls rescinded

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Kevin Durant and Patrick Beverley got two double technical fouls in the Warriors’ Game 1 win over the Clippers.

Though Golden State had the game in hand (really, unlike Game 2) by the time the players were ejected, the techs were a much bigger deal for the Warriors. Durant will stick around the playoffs long enough there’s a real risk of him getting seven technical fouls and automatic ejection.

That concern was heightened in the Warriors’ Game 3 win last night when Durant and JaMychal Green received double techs.

Durant, via Drew Shiller of NBC Sports Bay Area:

“We were conversing about the play before, and then someone came out of nowhere and tech’d us both,” Durant explained to the media after the game. “Hopefully it gets rescinded.”

The NBA obliged:

Durant is back down to two technical fouls for the playoffs.

Loaded with expiring contracts, Pacers still scraping and clawing together

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Thaddeus Young faced a tough decision last summer.

Coming off the best season of his career, he held a $13,764,045 player option with the Pacers. Opting in probably, though not definitely, maximized his salary this year. But opting out would have allowed him to sign a long-term deal with more total compensation.

Young opted in.

“Obviously, I had a few teams that wanted to pay me some money and stuff like that,” Young said. “But I figured that playing another season and going into it with these guys is better for me.

“We’re a family. We built something. We have some unfinished business.”

That decision, several others and Victor Oladipo‘s season-ending knee injury sent Indiana toward its identity – a tough, balanced team full of players incentivized to look out for themselves.

Several key Pacers – Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Wesley Matthews, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans – are on expiring contracts. But they don’t play like it. Indiana has remained cohesive amid obstacles, including the contract situations.

Don’t expect that to change with the Pacers trailing the Celtics 2-0 in their first round series entering Game 3 tonight.

Indiana proved its mettle last season. Largely written off after the Paul George trade, the Pacers became the NBA’s surprise team by winning 48 games. Victor Oladipo broke out as a star.

This season brought a new complication – players on the verge of getting compensated for their success. It could have happened more gradually, but circumstance created a rush.

Young opted in. Indiana exercised a $10.5 million team option on Bogdanovic and a $10 million team option on Collison, locking this in as the final year of their contracts. Matthews got bought out by the Knicks and signed for the rest of the season with a Pacers team that presented major opportunity with Oladipo sidelined. Evans, finding an underwhelming market in free agency last summer, prioritized a one-year deal. Joseph was the only one who was clearly entering the final season of his contract in Indiana.

The Pacers have given 68% of their minutes this postseason to players on expiring contracts. That’s a close second to the 76ers (only because I counted a few players with sure-to-be-declined player options – Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Khris Middleton – as having expiring contracts).

Here’s the percentage of minutes given to players on expiring contracts this postseason:

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In the regular season, Indiana trailed only the Wizards.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan said he addressed the contract situation before the season. His message, as summarized by Joseph: “We’re better when we play together, and if we do, then everybody will get rewarded.”

Players clearly bought in. Indiana surged to a 32-15 start. But Oladipo’s injury tested the Pacers’ cohesiveness.

They clearly wouldn’t be as good without their star, and they went just 16-19 since his last game. It would have been a logical time for players to go their own ways and start playing for themselves in what looked like it’d be a lost season.

Instead, they tightened their bond. This team has been quite competitive without Oladipo. The schedule got tough in March, but the Pacers stuck together.

“We don’t have big names, big stars on our team,” Bogdanovic said. “But we are fighting every single night.”

The delicate balance of Indiana’s offense – especially considering contract-year motivations – is quite stunning.

The Pacers averaged 5.4 double-digit scorers per game this season – the most in nearly two decades. Not bad for a team that finished 22nd in the NBA in points per game. Though scoring is up this season, 69 other teams averaged more points per game since another team had so many double-digit scorers per game.

“There’s a lot of players on the other teams that play for their own stats,” Bogdanovic said. “…We have this season, eight or nine players with expiring contracts, and we are still playing the right way, sharing the ball. We don’t care who’s going to score. That’s why we are successful.”

Unconcerned about their scoring numbers, Indiana players exert their energy on other things – defending, rebounding, screening. The Pacers impose a hard-nosed style, just as they did last year.

Indiana’s professionalism and focus on winning is a tribute to its players and organizational culture. This is a veteran team with the right priorities.

As much as he believed in this group, as well as he has guided it, McMillan wasn’t quite certain how the contract situations would affect his squad.

“That can go either way,” McMillan said. “It can be good or bad. It’s been good for us. Our guys have committed to playing together.”

Possible top-10 pick Sekou Doumbouya declares for NBA draft

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Just three 18-year-olds have played in the NBA since the league instituted its one-and-done rule: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dragan Bender and Devin Booker.

Sekou Doumbouya – who’ll remain 18 until Dec. 23 – could become the fourth.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

French forward Sekou Doumbouya has submitted paperwork to the league office to make himself eligible for the 2019 NBA draft, his agent, Bouna Ndiaye of Comsport, told ESPN.

Doumbouya projects as a potential lottery pick.

The 6-foot-9 power forward is extremely physically developed for his age. He’s strong and mobile, and he can elevate.

But he’s still early in his skill development. His shot, handle and feel all need work.

Doumbouya has plenty of tools. His rebounding is already impressive. The rest? It’ll be a project.

Report: Pelicans cut Lakers GM Rob Pelinka from Anthony Davis trade talks

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On Jan. 31, a report emerged the Pelicans hadn’t returned the Lakers’ calls about Anthony Davis. Later that day, another report said the Pelicans and Lakers discussed a Davis trade.

That sparked questions: Was the first report wrong? Did New Orleans and Los Angeles begin talking that day?

Maybe we missed an important distinction.

The first report said then-Pelicans general manager Dell Demps hadn’t returned Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s calls. The second report said Demps spoke with Lakers president Magic Johnson.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Pelinka was mostly cut out of trade talks between L.A. and New Orleans, with the Pelicans preferring to deal directly with Johnson, multiple league sources told ESPN.

Since Johnson stunningly resigned, Pelinka has assumed control in Los Angeles. The Lakers surely still want to trade for Davis.

Will having Pelinka running the front office impair their ability to do so?

We don’t know why the Pelicans rebuffed Pelinka. Different theories bring varying levels of present concern.

Maybe the Pelicans just didn’t want to waste their time with someone who’s not in charge. That’s often an issue when lower-level executives contact other teams. If that’s the case, Pelinka assuming the top job in basketball operations would solve the problem.

Maybe Demps was still bitter with Pelinka over Pelinka’s time as an agent. In 2012, New Orleans restricted free agent Eric Gordon – represented by Pelinka – signed an offer sheet with the Suns. Gordon lobbied hard to leave New Orleans, even saying his heart was in Phoenix. Though New Orleans matched, the saga caused animosity. But the Pelicans fired Demps and hired David Griffin, who’ll now oversee Davis. If this was a personal issue between Pelinka and Demps, that’s now irrelevant.

Maybe Pelinka is just that off-putting. I definitely don’t buy everything people say about him. Being a good agent often means ruffling feathers, and it’s easy for people he countered in negotiations to gossip about him now. But maybe there’s some truth to Pelinka being difficult to work with. If so, that’d come up again – not just with the Pelicans, but every team.