Pistons guard Isiah Thomas and Bulls guard Michael Jordan
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Michael Jordan’s five biggest on-court rivals

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Michael Jordan didn’t have one great rival throughout his career.

There was no Bird to his Magic or Kareem to his Wilt. LeBron James has had a couple of different rivals — the Big 3 Celtics, then Stephen Curry‘s Warriors — but there were clear ones at points through his career.

With Jordan, it was rarely that way. There was not one great foil through most of his career; instead different teams were presenting different challenges at different times.

Still, some rivals rose up and pushed Jordan, each eventually falling by the wayside. (A note: This list is on-court Jordan rivals from his playing days, not rivals to his legacy such as LeBron or Kobe Bryant.)

Here are the biggest five.

Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons

Ironically, Jordan’s biggest rival was a kid from Chicago.

Isiah Thomas grew up in the Windy City and went on to be the leader of the Bad Boy Pistons, the team that for years blocked the path of Jordan and the Bulls, forcing coaching and roster changes in Chicago. Those championship Pistons teams forced Jordan and the Bulls to reach legendary status just to get out of the East.

The rivalry goes back to Jordan’s rookie year in 1985, when he was an All-Star and the conspiracy theory goes Thomas orchestrated a plan to freeze Jordan out in that game. Like belief in a fake moon landing or UFOs, this seems more paranoid theory than reality — Jordan took nine shots in the game, and good luck getting Thomas to organize rivals Larry Bird and Dr. J — but Jordan used it as fuel. He used everything as fuel. Eventually, Jordan got his revenge when he helped freeze Thomas out of the 1992 Dream Team.

Thomas and the Pistons — particularly Joe Dumars — were the ones who pushed Jordan and the Bulls to greatness. Jordan couldn’t just score his way past this smart, deep, championship team.

The Bulls’ run of losses to the Pistons started in the 1988 Eastern Conference second round, when Jordan averaged 27.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game but it was not near enough as the Pistons won in five games. There simply wasn’t enough talent around Jordan at that point (the second-leading scorer for the Bulls in that series was Sam Vincent).

The 1989 conference finals was the series the Pistons broke out the “Jordan Rules” — double-team early, foul hard if he drives, but do not let him get a rhythm — and it worked. While Jordan averaged 29.5 points and 6.5 assists a game, the Pistons won the final three games of that series and moved on to the NBA Finals, winning their first title.

By 1990 the Bulls had Phil Jackson in place and they were developing a system — it wasn’t just all Jordan. Against Detroit that year, Jordan averaged 32 points a game, and the Bulls pushed the Pistons to seven games in the conference finals, but again it was the Bad Boys who advanced (and won another ring).

We all know what happened next. But if it wasn’t for Thomas, Dumars, and the Bad Boy Pistons pushing him, teaching MJ what it would take to win, Jordan would not have achieved the same heights.

John Starks, Patrick Ewing, and the Knicks

Jordan’s rivalry with Patrick Ewing goes back to college — Jordan’s game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA Championship game lifted his North Carolina team past Ewing’s Georgetown team.

Nine years later, when the Bulls had absorbed the lessons of the Pistons and were ready to start winning, it was Ewing, John Starks, and the Knicks who were a thorn in their side nearly every year. The teams meet in the playoffs in 1991, ’92, ’93, ’94, and ’96.

That 1991 playoff — a 3-0 sweep by the Bulls — included one of the iconic dunks of Jordan’s career, spinning past Charles Oakley to dunk on Patrick Ewing.

There would be no more easy sweeps of the Knicks, by the next season that was a knock-down, drag-out seven-game series that came to typify this rivalry. John Starks was the guy often lined up on Jordan (it’s never just a one-man job to guard him) and said the scouting report on MJ was not complex, everyone knew what he wanted to do, it was just impossible to stop him. Starks tried, he and the Knicks were physical and knocked him around as hard as they could. In the end it didn’t matter, Jordan could create a little bit of space against Starks and that’s all he needed.

Charles Barkley

Charles Barkley and his Philadelphia 76ers teams were the other rising power in the East in the late 1980s into the next decade — just not rising as fast or as high as the Bulls.

Barkley had some monster games against Jordan and the Bulls, and that includes in the playoffs. The Sixers and Bulls met in the second round in 1990 and Barkley averaged 23.8 points and 17 rebounds a game, but the Bulls won the series in five. The next year, the two met again in the second round, again Barkley put up big numbers — 25.6 points and 10.2 rebounds a game — and again Jordan and the Bulls won in five.

For the 1992-93 season, Barkley was traded out West to the Phoenix Suns and turned in the best season of his career, averaging 25.6 points and 12.2 rebounds a game, winning the MVP award and leading the Suns to 62 wins — and eventually the NBA Finals. Where Jordan was waiting. Barkley averaged 27 and 13 for the series, had an efficient 54.4 true shooting percentage; he rose to the occasion.

Jordan averaged 41 points a game, had a 55.8 true shooting percentage, and the Bulls won the series in six.

Jordan and Barkley were good friends, golfing and gambling together for many years, but that ended when Barkley, on TNT’s Inside the NBA, criticized Jordan’s ownership style in Charlotte saying he had too many “yes men” around him. Accurate or not, Jordan took it personally and holds on to grudges like no other. Barkley says he misses Jordan, the two have not mended fences to this day.

John Stockton, Karl Malone, the Utah Jazz

This Jazz team is one of the greats never to win an NBA title. They had the all-time assists leader in John Stockton and arguably the greatest power forward ever to play the game in Karl Malone (Tim Duncan is the other guy in that debate). Quality role players surrounded that duo and everyone was buying into the system of hard-nosed former Bulls star Jerry Sloan.

They may not seem like rivals from the Bulls perspective. By the time of the 1997 NBA Finals, the internal fights amongst the Bulls — as The Last Dance shows — outweighed the challenges on the court. However, the Jazz were no easy out, and it took an iconic shot to beat Utah, win the title, and end this era of the Bulls.

Clyde Drexler

The Portland Trail Blazers drafted Kentucky center Sam Bowie with the second pick in the 1984 draft, passing on Jordan because they already had Clyde Drexler. That example is used to this day by team executives and fans arguing to “take the best available player in the draft” regardless of position.

Drexler was elite, the second-best two-guard in the NBA of his era, a 10-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA, and future Hall of Famer, a true Portland legend. He just wasn’t Jordan.

That became evident in the 1992 NBA Finals, when Portland advanced to take on the Bulls. Jordan dominated Drexler in the series, averaging 35.8 points and 6.5 assists, with a 61.7 true shooting percentage. Jordan even dropped six threes — not the strong part of his game — on Portland in Game 1.

Jordan guarded Drexler much of the series and Clyde put up good numbers — 24.8 points and 7.8 rebounds a game, with a 52.2 true shooting percentage — but he couldn’t lead his team to the heights Jordan could lift the Bulls. MJ just had another level that separated him from Drexler and everyone else.

LeBron James: On behalf of basketball community, we won’t miss Donald Trump’s viewership

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NBA players kneeled for the national anthem.

President Donald Trump called the protest – which is meant to call attention to racism, particularly through police brutality – “disgraceful” and said he stopped watching games.

And in yet another predictable turn in this news cycle, Lakers star LeBron James fired back at Trump.

LeBron:

I really don’t think the basketball community are sad about losing his viewership, him viewing the game.

And that’s all I’ve got to say. I don’t want to – I’m not going to get into a – because I already know where this could go, where it could lead to for tomorrow for me. I’m not going to get into it.

But I think our game is in a beautiful position. And we have fans all over the world. And our fans not only love the way we play the game – we try to give it back to them with our commitment to the game – but also respect what else we try to bring to the game and acknowledge what’s right and what’s wrong.

And I hope everyone – no matter the race, no matter the color, no matter their size – will see what leadership that we have at the top in our country and understand that November is right around the corner. And it’s a big moment for us as Americans. If we continue to talk about we want better, want change, we have an opportunity to do that.

But the game will go on without his eyes on it. I can sit here and speak for all of us that love the game of basketball. We could care less.

LeBron has frequently criticized the president. Trump has also criticized LeBron. That’s how it goes.

In this case (and others), LeBron has the moral high ground. Kneeling during the national anthem is a patriotic act designed to make the United States a better place for all its people to live – something far more noble than saluting a piece of cloth during a song.

However, LeBron is wrong to speak for the entire basketball community. A lot of people love basketball. They don’t all hold the same political views. Some care about remaining in the good graces of the president of the United States, whomever that is. Some even care about the approval of Trump specifically.

Is there a limit on how much you love basketball if you’d stop watching because of a peaceful protest before a game? Obviously. But there’s still room to love basketball and also care about other things.

LeBron doesn’t have to personally dignify people who care both about basketball and Trump. But LeBron shouldn’t try to speak on their behalf, either.

LeBron’s rebuke would have been powerful enough (and more fair) on its own.

 

Jazz forward Joe Ingles joins Grizzlies huddle, drapes arms over Memphis players (video)

Jazz forward Joe Ingles vs. Grizzlies
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Jazz forward Joe Ingles has no boundaries with huddles.

Ingles invaded the Grizzlies huddle today, even putting his arms around – and some weight on – Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen. Gorgui Dieng appeared to notice the intruder just before the video cut away:

Beyond the hijinks, Ingles also scored 25 points – including 12 in the fourth quarter – to lead Utah to a 124-115 win.

NBA owners pledge $300M for empowering Black community

NBA Black Lives Matter
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The NBA put “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on the court and social-justice messages on jerseys. These are visible symbols that can draw attention to the fight for racial justice.

But NBA owners have the power to do more than make symbolic gestures.

NBA owners will do more.

NBA release:

The NBA Board of Governors announced today that it will contribute $300 million in initial funding to establish the first-ever NBA Foundation dedicated to creating greater economic empowerment in the Black community.  The Foundation is being launched in partnership with the National Basketball Players Association.

Over the next 10 years, the 30 NBA team owners will collectively contribute $30 million annually to establish a new, leaguewide charitable foundation.  Through its mission to drive economic empowerment for Black communities through employment and career advancement, the NBA Foundation will seek to increase access and support for high school, college-aged and career-ready Black men and women, and assist national and local organizations that provide skills training, mentorship, coaching and pipeline development in NBA markets and communities across the United States and Canada.  As a public charity, the Foundation will also aim to work strategically with marketing and media partners to develop additional programming and funding sources that deepen the NBA family’s commitment to racial equality and social justice.

The Foundation will focus on three critical employment transition points: obtaining a first job, securing employment following high school or college, and career advancement once employed.  Through contributions, the NBA Foundation will enhance and grow the work of national and local organizations dedicated to education and employment, including through investment in youth employment and internship programs, STEM fields, job shadows and apprenticeships, development pathways outside of traditional higher education, career placement, professional mentorship, networking and specific partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“On behalf of the NBA Board of Governors, I am thrilled to announce the creation of the NBA Foundation,” said NBA Board of Governors Chairman and Toronto Raptors Governor Larry Tanenbaum.  “All NBA team governors recognize our unique position to effect change and we are committed to supporting and empowering young Black men and women in each of our team markets as well as communities across the U.S. and Canada.”

“The creation of this foundation is an important step in developing more opportunities for the Black community,” said NBPA President Chris Paul.  “I am proud of our league and our players for their commitment to this long-term fight for equality and justice, and I know we will continue to find ways to keep pushing for meaningful institutional change.”

The Foundation will work directly with all 30 teams, their affiliated charitable organizations and the NBPA to support national organizations and their local affiliates as well as local grassroots organizations to facilitate sustainable programming and create change in team markets.

“Given the resources and incredible platform of the NBA, we have the power to ideate, implement and support substantive policies that reflect the core principles of equality and justice we embrace,” said NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts.  “This Foundation will provide a framework for us to stay committed and accountable to these principles.”

“We are dedicated to using the collective resources of the 30 teams, the players and the league to drive meaningful economic opportunities for Black Americans,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.  “We believe that through focused programs in our team markets and nationally, together with clear and specific performance measures, we can advance our shared goals of creating substantial economic mobility within the Black community.”

The 30 NBA teams will be members of the NBA Foundation with its eight Board of Directors comprised of representatives from the NBA Board of Governors (four board seats), players and executives from the NBPA (three board seats) and the league office (one board seat).  The Foundation’s board will oversee all business affairs and provide strategic direction with respect to programming and grantmaking.

This is great.

Trail Blazers reportedly tried recently to get Trevor Ariza to join them in bubble

Trail Blazers forward Trevor Ariza
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Trevor Ariza opted-out of playing for Portland in the NBA’s restart so he could spend time with his son. Due to a custody case, he had a limited window to visit and he chose family over basketball.

However, as his custody window shifted and Portland started to look at a deeper playoff run — and maybe a matchup with the Lakers in the first round — some Trail Blazers players tried to get Ariza to come to the bubble after all. If Zion Williamson and others could leave the bubble for family emergencies, why couldn’t Ariza be let in, the players asked?

That plan didn’t work out, reports Chris Hayes of Yahoo Sports.

But because his visitation period had been amended with a conclusion date now near the start of August, there was some optimism among the players that Ariza might be allowed into the bubble to further strengthen their chances of a deep playoff run. If the Trail Blazers were to snag the final playoff spot, they would face LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and a pesky Ariza would have been useful guarding James.

The possibility was explored, but sources said the Trail Blazers had to have previously applied for a hardship waiver or a late-arrival form for Ariza to be considered for entry into the bubble. Even if those steps were taken, the league would have likely denied the request because Ariza chose to opt out, wasn’t included on the restart roster, and didn’t arrive with his team on July 9.

The league put together strict rules about who could and couldn’t be inside the bubble — rules agreed to by the players’ union. Those rules are working at keeping the virus out. The league was not going to bend the rules for Portland now.

Ariza chose time with his son and wanted it bad enough to give up between $1.1 million and $1.8 million in salary (depending on how far the Trail Blazers got). Nobody should knock that choice; it was his to make, and picking family is never the wrong option.

Ariza is under contract for $12.8 million with Portland next season, but only $1.8 million of that salary guaranteed next season. If Portland wants to reduce payroll, they can buy Ariza out and make him a free agent at age 35. There would be suitors, Ariza has proven to be a helpful glue guy on good teams.

That glue just can’t help Portland this season.