LeBron James first star in decades to face former team in NBA Finals

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When LeBron James left the Heat in 2014, he claims someone from Miami told him, “You’re making the biggest mistake of your career.”

Heat president Pat Riley said his plan for Miami “all of a sudden came crashing down.”

Six years later, LeBron and the Heat are in the NBA Finals.

LeBron remains a driving force of championship contention. After Miami, he led the Cavaliers to the 2016 title (proving wrong his doubter with the Heat). Now, he’s flourishing with the Lakers. Even at age 35, LeBron is a superstar who held the allure to recruit a co-star in Anthony Davis. That’s a championship recipe.

The Heat have nearly completely turned over their roster since LeBron left. (Only Udonis Haslem remains.) Riley remained committed to winning immediately throughout this post-LeBron era and hit on the right combination of players for this moment. Miami lured Jimmy Butler, drafted and developed Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, traded for capable veterans Goran Dragic, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala and found undrafted gems Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. It’s a remarkable story of team-building.

Now, LeBron and his former team meet on the biggest stage.

This is just the third time an All-Star has faced his former team in the NBA Finals:

  • LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) vs. Miami Heat in 2020
  • Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia 76ers) vs. San Francisco Warriors in 1967
  • Ed Macauley (St. Louis Hawks) vs. Boston Celtics in 1957

After years of coming up short, Wilt Chamberlain and the Warriors grew tired of each. San Francisco traded him to Philadelphia, bottomed out and drafted Rick Barry. Barry and Nate Thurmond – who moved from power forward to his more-natural center with Chamberlain’s exit – lifted the Warriors to the 1967 NBA Finals, where they lost to Chamberlain and the 76ers.

The Celtics were so smitten with a young center from University of San Francisco, they traded star center Ed Macauley to the St. Louis Hawks for the No. 2 pick in the 1956 NBA Draft… Bill Russell. Russell led Boston to more than a decade of dominance, NBA Finals trips in his first two seasons coming against Macauley’s Hawks. The teams split, the Celtics winning in 1957 and St. Louis winning in 1958.

A few other players were All-Stars in another season and still producing near – using that term generously in some cases – that level when facing their former team the NBA Finals:

  • Adrian Dantley (Detroit Pistons) vs. Los Angeles Lakers in 1988
  • Paul Westphal (Phoenix Suns) vs. Boston Celtics in 1976
  • Charlie Scott (Boston Celtics) vs. Phoenix Suns in 1976
  • Paul Silas (Boston Celtics) vs. Phoenix Suns in 1976
  • Dick Barnett (New York Knicks) vs. Los Angeles Lakers in 1970
  • Ed Macauley (St. Louis Hawks) vs. Boston Celtics in 1958

It’s obvious why these situations are rare. When on a team that could be good enough to reach the Finals without him, stars usually stay put. After losing a star, teams usually fall off.

But these are unique circumstances.

A Northeast Ohio native, LeBron wanted to win in Cleveland. Then, he wanted to live in Los Angeles. He still has the talent to dominate and the power to get his teams to mortgage their futures to surround him with immediate talent.

Riley is one of the greatest executives in league history. He created a culture in Miami that helps the Heat get through thick and thin. It’s one of the reasons LeBron joined the organization. Even after he left, the Heat focused on winning quickly and player development – then hit enough right breaks on this run through the bubble.

Make no mistake: Miami is the underdog of this story. LeBron’s continued reign was far more predictable. The Heat have been in precarious situations over the last few years before coming out ahead now.

That’s why Riley was so upset in 2014. He said he even considered going Dan Gilbert until a friend talked him out of it.

In his infamous letter, Gilbert wrote, “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE.” Of course, the Cavs came up comically short. They were awful while LeBron won two titles in Miami.

And LeBron has already won a ring since leaving the Heat. But Miami has the opportunity for revenge that Gilbert could only dream of.

LeBron has an opportunity, too. In 2016, when the Cavaliers and Heat had a chance to play in the Eastern Conference finals, LeBron called it his preferred matchup. That was somewhat about his friendship with Miami star Dwyane Wade, who has since retired. But there are are still plenty of familiar faces in the Heat organization.

You know what they say about familiarity…

Karl-Anthony Towns just cleared to walk Saturday following non-COVID illness

Karl-Anthony Towns Offseaon Workout
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images
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Karl-Anthony Towns has not been in camp with the Timberwolves, sidelined by a non-COVID illness. Beyond that there were not a lot of details, other than his girlfriend Jordyn Woods saying on social media that she had taken him to the hospital.

Towns spoke to the media for the first time this season on Monday and said he was just cleared to walk again on Saturday, but did not get into detail about what he is dealing with.

First, it is Towns’ right if and when to disclose what he went through. This is not an on-court injury leading to a loss of playing time.

Towns has been sidelined before by injury, previously it was COVID. After losing his mother and other family members to the disease, he also had a long battle with it. Fortunately, this is not that virus, but whatever it was it sidelined him for a couple of weeks.

That missed training camp is a setback as the Timberwolves try to get used to a two-big lineup with KAT and Rudy Gobert, plus some other new faces. Still, Towns and Minnesota should be good to go by the start of the season, a team thinking playoffs and much more after spending big this offseason.

Lakers reportedly ‘seriously considered’ Westbrook trade for Hield, Turner

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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That was Lakers GM Rob Pelinka on media day talking about the possibility of the Lakers trading the only two first-round picks they control this decade — 2027 and 2029 — to upgrade this roster around LeBron. Pelinka was clear the Lakers were committed to building a winner around LeBron, “We have one of the great players in LeBron James to ever play the game, and he committed to us on a long-term contract, a three-year contract… He committed to our organization. That’s gotta be a bilateral commitment, and it’s there.”

But should that include a Russell Westbrook trade to Indiana for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner? Shams Charania of The Athletic updated and added to the extensive previous reporting on this trade, saying the Lakers kept the door open right up to the start of training camp but didn’t pull the trigger.

Vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, owner Jeanie Buss and senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis seriously considered sending Westbrook and unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to the Pacers for center Myles Turner and guard Buddy Hield, sources said. They held a series of meetings in the days leading up to camp to analyze the possible Pacers deal from every angle, with the views of Ham and Lakers executives Joey and Jesse Buss also being strongly considered in the process. The organization even delayed the midweek news conference for Pelinka and Ham as the debate continued…

If they were going to gamble on a make-or-break move of this magnitude, the thinking went, then everyone had to have confidence in the same vision. But when that wasn’t the case, sources say, the choice was made by Pelinka to remain patient and see, yet again, if Westbrook might find a way to make this imperfect fit with the Lakers work.

Hield and Turner would absolutely improve the Lakers. Turner can play the five, is an elite shot blocker who could provide a strong defensive back line next to Anthony Davis, and is a respectable 3-point shooter who can space the floor. He’s a natural fit. Hield brings shooting that the Lakers have coveted for years and need more of now.

That trade would have moved the Lakers up the ladder to a solid playoff team in the West. Would that trade make the Lakers contenders? Probably not. It still would have come back to the bubble version of Davis and LeBron being ready for the final 16-game sprint to have a puncher’s chance (that may be the case regardless of other moves). Also, it would have messed with future free agency plans in Los Angeles — the Lakers can have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase Kyrie Irving (although Shams reports that’s not in their plans) or other name players, Hield is owed $19.3 million next season and Turner will be a free agent the Lakers would need to re-sign. This deal would end the dream of a free agent taking a little less than the max to come to the Lakers (a dream not likely to come to reality anyway).

As Pelinka said, the Lakers have one shot with trading their two picks to upgrade the roster — they have to hit a home run, this can’t be a solid single. The Lakers were not convinced Hield and Turner could be that home run tandem.

So Los Angeles will go into the season with a starting five of Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, LeBron, Davis, and Damian Jones, with a bench of Patrick Beverley, Thomas Bryant, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schroder. The Lakers will see if it fits, how far it looks like this group can take them under new coach Darvin Ham, and watch the market to see what other stars could become available.

The Lakers aren’t done dealing, but it looks like a deal with Indiana is now in the rearview mirror.

PBT Podcast: Philadelphia 76ers 2022-23 season preview

2022-23 Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Philadelphia 76ers are title contenders — if James Harden and Joel Embiid can play up to their potential on the biggest of NBA stages. That hasn’t always happened before, particularly with Harden.

Those two are now set up well. Philadelphia learned its lessons from the playoff loss to Miami last season. GM Daryl Morey rounded out the roster with more toughness and two-way players in the form of P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and DeAnthony Melton. Add in the development of Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle and you have a deep roster of quality players — down to BBall Paul.

Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia joins me to discuss if Doc Rivers is ready to take this team to the next level, and if all the additions can come together when it matters. Can Harden shake his history of playoff reputation and lead a team to the Finals?

You can always listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

When will LeBron James break Kareem’s all-time scoring record?

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LeBron James is trying not to think about it too much.

“The only time I’ve kind of like thought about it is when someone, you know, been posting on social and it went through my scroll, through my feed, and I’ve seen it,” LeBron said at Lakers’ media day. “And every single time I’m kind of in awe of it, like, wow.”

The wow is breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record.

It was a record thought almost untouchable at 38,387 points, but now LeBron sits just 1,326 points shy of breaking it — health willing, he should pass Kareem this season.

When? Well, that takes a little math and speculation.

LeBron scored 30.3 points a game last season, but the two seasons prior to that it was closer to 25 points a game. If we split the difference and land at 27.5 points per game, it would take 48-49 games. We have to assume that 37-year-old LeBron (turning 38 just before the New Year) will sit out at least a couple of those first games, pushing this back a few games.

Considering LeBron could slide back in scoring to close to 25 a game again, the smart bet is he breaks Kareem’s record in late January or early February. The Lakers have a five-game East Coast road trip that includes Boston and New York starting Jan. 28 and running through Feb. 4, and that’s about the window.

“To sit here and to know that I’m on the verge of breaking probably the most sought-after record in the NBA, something that people say will probably never be done, I think it’s just super like humbling, for myself,” LeBron said. “I think it’s super cool.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well. I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Having been in the spotlight for as long as LeBron has — remember he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler — he can be very practiced, very polished with the media. His brand is smooth, as are his dealings with the press in general.

However, when talking about passing Abdul-Jabbar, it felt like LeBron’s guard was down. He was raw, more reflective and genuinely moved.

“You guys always see me use my hashtag #thekidfromakron and that those are the moments where I really think about that kid from Akron. Walking those streets and, you know, playing basketball when I had actually had a basketball and the hoop, or actually just walking around and air dribbling and shooting into it and invisible hoop you know, and counting 5…4…3…2…1 and, you know, making game-winning shots.

“I’m not going to put too much pressure on it throughout the season. But I think it’s a pretty historical moment when it gets here and you know, as long as my family and friends are all there that’s that’s the most important for me.”

LeBron’s family will undoubtedly be there, and the whole world will be watching. Longevity and LeBron’s ability to be great into age 38 (and beyond) is part of his GOAT argument — and there is no better cornerstone of that argument than being the game’s all-time leading scorer.