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.

Report: John Paxson to remain in power with Bulls

Bulls executive John Paxson
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The Bulls are reportedly looking for a general manager to replace Gar Forman.

But the other half of GarPax – Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson – apparently isn’t going anywhere. And of course neither is president/CEO Michael Reinsdorf, son of owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

A source familiar with the situation told the Sun-Times on Wednesday that there could be multiple people hired, as the power structure is still being determined.

Paxson and Reinsdorf are still running the show, with Paxson still considered to have a valuable seat at the table no matter what title they come up for him.

Even if it appears that Paxson will be taking a background approach, the source said don’t believe it. The Reinsdorfs still have 100 percent faith in him leading the direction of this organization.

Evaluating individual members of a front office can be extremely difficult from the outside.

But Paxson didn’t cover himself in glory when he effectively declared the Bulls, after going 27-55 in 2017-18, were done tanking. Chicago went 22-60 last season and is 19-36 this season.

The Bulls need an honest assessment of where they are. They’re not good and probably not that close to being good. They have a few interesting young players – Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr. But even with a high pick in this year’s draft, Chicago’s young core isn’t strong enough to assume it will rise into a quality team.

Though Paxson has supported Jim Boylen, the Bulls could probably use a new coach.

More importantly, they must understand that remaining at the bottom and securing more high picks is their best path forward. Drafting well would accelerate the process, but drafting is hard. Sometimes, you need more bites at the apple.

Of course, that will require a patience Chicago has rarely shown.

Knicks’ former player, G-League GM Allan Houston could get promotion

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There was a time when former Knicks All-Star player Allan Houston was seen as the rising front office star of the team. Since then, he has risen to assistant GM (before the Phil Jackson era), survived multiple management changes, and bounced around to different roles, most recently as the GM of the G-League Westchester Knicks.

Now he could be seeing a promotion under soon-to-arrive team president Leon Rose, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

As Leon Rose prepares for his imminent takeover, Garden constant Allan Houston has emerged as a candidate for a front office promotion, a league source told the Daily News…

According to a source, Craig Robinson, the current Knicks’ vice president of player development, has already had his responsibilities cut. Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s brother, was hired by his Princeton buddy Steve Mills to oversee a comprehensive player development initiative…

The future of GM Scott Perry is unknown but it’s worth noting he has a strong relationship with Rose’s confidante, William Wesley.

Nobody knows exactly what the Knicks front office will look like after Rose officially takes the reins (he is still finishing up commitments to his CAA clients before coming over). We know William “World Wide Wes” Wesley will not have a role with the team, staying with CAA, but he will likely still have Rose’s ear. There will be a host of changes.

A deep house cleaning is in order in New York as the Knicks need to change their culture, not just their players. There is a lot of work to be done to develop players and build a foundation that will attract star players — right now the Knicks are not that kind of draw.  Houston apparently is going to get a chance to be part of whatever is next.

Steve Kerr says Stephen Curry will play this season once healthy

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“What’s the point? The Warriors have 12 wins, the worst record in the NBA, and are not sniffing the playoffs this season, so why bring Stephen Curry back this season at all? Why risk the injury? Why not tank?”

Steve Kerr has no use for that attitude.

Curry started practicing with the Warriors again on Wednesday. He will be re-evaluated the first week of March and could return to play soon after — and Kerr wants that. He wants Andrew Wiggins to get used to playing with Curry. Kerr defended the idea at Warriors practice on Wednesday (quotes via Monte Poole at NBC Sports Bay Area).

“It’s important for Steph and Andrew to get to know each other and to play together,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday night after practice at Chase Center. “It’s important for Steph to play without all of the guys we’ve lost who are not going to be back next year: Kevin (Durant) and Andre (Iguodala) and Shaun (Livingston). Steph in many ways has depended on those guys as sort of a giant security blanket.

“For a guy who is so skilled and talented, this has still been a team effort over the years. And he’s been blessed with some of the smartest players and most talented players in the league…

“He’s perfectly healthy. If the point is he might get hurt, what’s the point of ever playing anybody? I guess the argument is we’re not making the playoffs. So, are we not trying to entertain our fans?”

Kerr wants to build some familiarity and some momentum heading into next season. They might win a few more games, but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not going to hurt the Warriors in terms of position. Beyond that, this is a down draft — in our podcast last week, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons — so Warriors fans may want to temper expectations about how much help this draft can provide.

Curry wants to play, he’s healthy, he should play. Load management has a role in the league, but this is not it.

Target score ending likely returns to All-Star Game next year

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It seemed obvious this is the direction the NBA would go after the most competitive All-Star Game in recent memory, after it generated an incredibly positive buzz. Now we have some confirmation.

A league executive told Zach Lowe of ESPN that yes, it’s highly likely the target score idea will be back next All-Star Game.

It is a “good assumption” the NBA will use a target score to end next season’s All-Star Game after experimenting with the concept for the first time Sunday, Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations, told ESPN on Wednesday in New York…

“The intensity popped,” Spruell said. “The guys really bought in…”

If the NBA uses the target score at next season’s All Star Game, they may tinker with the rules so that the game cannot end on a free throw, Spruell said. They have already discussed taking points away from any team that commits a shooting foul on a potential winning shot instead of awarding free throws, Spruell said. They could also force that team to remove the player who committed the foul and replace him with someone else for a certain number of possessions, Spruell said.

If this were used in a regular-season NBA game, then essentially sending a player to the “penalty box” after a foul on a game-winning attempt would have some impact. In the All-Star Game, not so much. For example, if Kyle Lowry had been sent to the bench after fouling Anthony Davis, then Nick Nurse could have replaced him with Jimmy Butler or Trae Young or some other elite player. It’s not that damaging.

Removing points makes more sense.

While the Elam-style ending was a success in the All-Star Game (and next season they may bump the point total up from 24, even though it took 15 minutes of game time to play the quarter, because that is an outlier for the All-Star Game), it’s not coming to the NBA. Which means it’s not coming to the G-League either, Lowe was told. A discussion about Summer League doesn’t seem to be on the table, either.

Where could the target score ending pop up? If/when the NBA starts playing a mid-season tournament, Lowe was told — and those playoff games could be just 40 minutes. Also, the G-League showcase every December makes some sense, Lowe was told.

The target score ending was a huge hit in the All-Star Game, it only makes sense to bring it back. But for the NBA, it will remain more special occasion gimmick than a daily part of the league.