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: Cavaliers trying to clear cap space to be aggressive in free agency

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The Lakers are trying to pry Kawhi Leonard from the Spurs in order to attract LeBron James and maybe Paul George.

The Cavaliers are…

Adrian Wojnarowski, Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

The Cavaliers have been working on several trade and salary-cap clearing possibilities to be aggressive in free agency

Even if they decline Kendrick Perkins‘ team option, waive unguaranteed Okaro White, renounce all their free agents besides LeBron and somehow dump George Hill, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith without taking any salary in return… the Cavs would still have just the mid-level exception to spend.

Cleveland clearing significant cap space to appeal to LeBron is fantasy. Hopefully for their sake, the Cavaliers’ front office has other ideas. I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe this report misconstrues their intentions.

Though free agency is a pipe dream, Cleveland can can upgrade it roster via trade. The two Cavs with most trade value are Kevin Love and Collin Sexton. But Cleveland reportedly plans not to trade Love, and LeBron’s camp reportedly likes Sexton.

If LeBron returns to Cleveland, it won’t be because of his supporting cast. It’s far more likely to be a reason he leaves. Again.

Draymond Green rejects Tristan Thompson’s handshake, essentially calls Cavaliers big soft

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Draymond Green appeared to troll LeBron James with his shirt at the Warriors’ championship parade.

Green’s words definitely targeted Cavaliers big Tristan Thompson.

Thompson pushed the basketball into Green’s face face late in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Green offered to meet Thompson in the streets.

Then, Green sharpened the rhetoric yesterday.

NBC Sports Bay Area:

Green:

There’s a lot of guys in this league, they’re soft. We’re just cut from a different cloth.

We just ain’t cut the same. I told one of them dudes from the Cavs after the game. He tried to shake my hand. I said, “Tristan, we ain’t cut the same.”

This appears to be that moment:

This is very in-character for Green – being tougher than his opponent and then telling everyone about it.

Kobe Bryant’s advice to LeBron James: ‘Got to figure out way to win’

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Kobe Bryant has the Michael Jordan seal of approval because, for Kobe, it was all about the rings. That was his identity, that and the killer instinct. Kobe’s legions of fans love them the “count the ringzzzzz” argument, context be damned.

So when Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck asked Kobe about LeBron and his next step, Kobe pointed to LeBron needing to add to his jewelry collection.

“All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That’s all I cared about. That’s how I valued Michael. That’s how I valued [Larry] Bird. That’s how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody’s going to value things differently, which is fine. I’m just telling you how I value mine.

“If I’m Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It’s not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out.”

Well, that’s vague advice.

Which brings us to the “what more can LeBron do with this supporting cast?” portion of the discussion. Other former champions interviewed by Beck for his article cut LeBron some slack. If beating a juggernaut Golden State Warriors team requires big games from J.R. Smith and Rodney Hood, well, one man can only do so much.

Not in Kobe’s world.

“Phil (Jackson) used to say this thing to me a lot, when I was doing a lot on the court,” Bryant said. “He’d say, ‘You have to do less.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, my teammates got to step up more.’ Phil would say, ‘Well, it’s your responsibility to thrust the game upon them.'”

It’s one thing to thrust the game upon Shaq and Pau Gasol and Robert Horry and Derek Fisher and Rick Fox and peak Lamar Odom, and it’s another to thrust it upon Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr.

Another thought here: Is Kobe advocating LeBron bolt Cleveland for a better supporting cast. Remember in the mid-2000s when the supporting cast around Kobe was a lot of Kwame Brown and Smush Parker — Kobe demanded a trade. The Lakers never followed through on that request, instead trading for Pau Gasol and getting the Lakers back into contention, but Kobe was not above moving on to get a ring.

What Kobe had that LeBron never did was ownership that could be trusted in the form of Jerry Buss. He knew how to run a professional organization, take the right gambles at the right time, and build a dynasty. Dan Gilbert… well, he knows how to use the comic sans font. Kobe has those ringzzzz as much because management put a winning team around him as anything he did. Nobody can win a title alone in the NBA.

Just watch LeBron the past few weeks to understand that.

(As an aside, if LeBron comes to the Lakers the fans there will never embrace him the way they did Kobe, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Is Jaren Jackson Jr. the future of the center position?

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Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t going to be the first pick in the draft, and I’m not sure just how many mock drafts are going to have him slotted somewhere in the top two or three picks.

The hype, attention and production that comes with the likes of DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Luka Doncic is hard to ignore, particularly in comparison with Jackson, who averaged just 10.9 points in one year at Michigan State and bowed out of the NCAA tournament after playing just 15 minutes in a second round loss to Syracuse.

Put another way, Jackson never really has moved the needle, which makes sense for a guy that was the fifth-option for his team in college.

But it doesn’t take all that much effort to find NBA decision-makers that think Jackson might end up being the most impactful NBA player to come out of this draft class.

The reason why is fairly straight-forward: He will fit seamlessly into the modern NBA given the combination of skills that he has while the other four players projected to go in the top five this year have more question marks. Ayton’s rim-protection, three-point shooting and questionable work ethic are red flags. Bagley cannot guard the position (five) that he is going to have to play offensively. Doncic’s relative lack of athleticism makes it unclear who he can guard at the next level. Mo Bamba’s offensive repertoire and toughness will be questioned.

Jackson?

He’s 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He shot 39.6 percent from three after shooting 43.8 percent from three on the EYBL circuit in 2016. He averaged 3.0 blocks despite playing just under 22 minutes a night as a freshman. He is as switchable as any big man in this class defensively because of his ability to move his feet. He won’t turn 19 years old until September 15th, making him 16 months younger than Bamba, 15 months younger than Michael Porter Jr., 14 months younger than Ayton and six months younger than Bagley, who reclassified to enroll at Duke a year early.

He’s everything that NBA teams are looking for as a defensive anchor in the era of small-ball fives switching pick-and-rolls.

Put another way, how much do you think Tristan Thompson (or Clint Capela) would be worth to the Cavs (or Rockets) if he could shoot 40 percent from three and 80 percent from the free throw line? What would Kevin Love‘s value be on the open market if he was a rim-protector and a better defender in space?

Jackson has a long was to go to get to that level, but when you imagine his ceiling, that’s the picture you get.

HEIGHT: 6-foot-11.25
WEIGHT: 236
WINGSPAN: 7-foot-5.25
2017-18 STATS: 10.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.0 bpg, 1.1 apg, 51.3/39.6/79.7, 38 3PM
DRAFT RANGE: Top four

STRENGTHS

When we talk about 3-and-D, typically what we’re referring to are wings, players like a Trevor Ariza or a Danny Green, but 3-and-D big men do exist. Jackson, who was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman, projects as the quintessential 3-and-D big, a perfect fit as a small-ball five in the modern NBA.

Let’s start with his ability to shoot the ball. Jackson knocked down 39.6 percent of his attempts from three in his one season at Michigan State, getting up nearly three threes per game. While that isn’t a massive sample size, Jackson shot 44 percent (28-for-64) from beyond the arc on Nike’s EYBL circuit prior to his senior season in high school and knocked down nearly 80 percent of his free throws this past season. His shooting stroke is awkward — he shoots a push shot with a low-release point that has a weird, sideways spin on it — but he has shot a high-percentage at every level he’s played at in his career. It’s not really a stretch to think that will continue onto the next level.

He’s also a capable driver — mostly to his left — when it comes to attacking closeouts, showing flashes of handle and the ability to beat bigger, and smaller, defenders off the bounce.

The defensive end of the floor is where the real intrigue lies with Jackson.

Offensively, he has a chance to be effective, a floor-spacer that can create some mismatches and beat a close-out, but I’d be pretty surprised if he ever ended up averaging more than 15-17 points in the NBA.

Where Jackson can really make his mark is on the defensive end of the floor, and I don’t think it’s crazy to say that winning a Defensive Player of the Year award in the NBA is within his range of outcomes.

Let’s start with the shot-blocking. On the season, Jackson averaged 3.0 blocks per night despite playing just under 22 minutes; he averaged 5.8 blocks per-40 minutes. Jackson’s block-rate is even more impressive, coming in fourth-nationally at 14.3. There hasn’t been a player drafted in the first round to post a better block rate in the year they were drafted since at least 2004; both Hasheem Thabeet and Larry Sanders, who were drafted after their junior seasons, bettered that block rate in limited roles as freshmen while Hassan Whiteside, who was a second-round pick, had the best block-rate of the bunch.

In fact, Jackson’s block-rate is better than just about every dominant big man that has been picked at the top of the lottery in recent years, including Anthony Davis, and that was despite the fact that he spent the majority of his minutes this season playing the four:

There’s more.

Since 2009-10, there have been just eight players — including Jackson — that have posted a block rate higher than 14 and a true-shooting percentage above 64. Jackson made 38 threes this past season. The other seven players on that list attempted one three combined.

I say all that to say this: The ability to block shots at the rate that Jackson blocks shots is a unique skill, one that is not often combined with a player that has the ability to shoot from distance that Jackson has.

Jackson, however, is more than just a shot-blocker on the defensive end. He can move his feet. He can defend guards on the perimeter when he’s forced to switch. He spent this past season covering college basketball’s small-ball fours. He got experience defending on an island and moving his feet against quicker ball-handlers.

Switchable rim-protectors that space the floor offensively don’t come around that often, and he still doesn’t turn 19 for another two months.

WEAKNESSES

Much of what ails Jackson has to do with his age.

He checked in at 236 pounds at the NBA Draft Combine, but he could still stand to add some size and muscle to his frame. His lower body strength needs work as well, as he has something of a high center of gravity. He’ll get bullied early on in his career. Jackson could also stand to improve his explosiveness and lateral quickness. At this point, he’s mobile and he’s long but he’s not an above-average athlete, particularly from an NBA perspective. That should improve as he gets into an NBA weight training program and continues to grow into his body. Remember, he was just 6-foot-2 as a freshman in high school.

Jackson needs to get most confidence in his ability to drive right and his awkward shooting stroke means he’ll probably never be a great pull-up jump-shooter, but that’s not likely to be something that he’ll be asked to do all that often.

Maturity and decision-making may be the biggest issue that he’ll face.

Let’s start with the fouls. He committed a LOT of them. Part of the reason that he only averaged 22 minutes was that he also averaged 3.2 fouls per game, or roughly 6.0 fouls per 40 minutes. Some of that is a result of Jackson still learning how to play and where to be positionally — freshman bigs are always going to be foul prone, especially when they’re being asked to defend on the perimeter more. Part of that is he is a little slow to react when defending on the perimeter. Sometimes that’s because he reads the play late, something that should change as he spends more time playing. Sometimes it’s because he’s too upright defensively, which will be helped as he develops his lower-body. Sometimes it’s because he’s over-aggressive, whether that manifests itself as a reach-in foul or getting whistled for over-the-back on a rebound he never really had a chance to get.

In theory, those are things that can be coached out. What’s a little more concerning is that Jackson is somewhat naïve and tends to have a long memory during games. He can get hung up on a referee blowing a call or him missing a shot.

But again, it’s hard to know whether that’s who he is or simply a result of an 18-year old being 18.

NBA COMPARISON

I’m not sure there really is a perfect comparison for Jackson because I’m not sure how many players have the combination of skills that he has. I think his floor is somewhere between a Serge Ibaka and a Robert Covington, depending on just how good of a shooter he develops into and where his development defensively takes him, which is part of the reason that he is steadily climbing draftboards. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where he doesn’t become a useful rotation player on a team that can play the way you need to play to compete with Golden State.

Jackson’s ceiling will be determined by what he becomes on the offensive end of the floor. Let’s say that his three-point shooting doesn’t take a dip when moving back to the NBA line and that he continues to add to his face-up game, I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could turn into Kristaps Porzingis-lite, but even that is far from perfect and probably an unfair expectation to put on an 18-year old.

The best way to think of Jackson’s ceiling: Clint Capela, except he adds Kevin Love’s perimeter repertoire in a role similar to the one Draymond Green plays — more on that in a second. That is an extremely useful and valuable player to have.

OUTLOOK

I have a very hard time seeing Jackson end up as a bust.

It will take some time for him to get there, but his tools defensively combined with his ability to make shots means that there will be a role for him in the NBA for a long time to come.

At the same time, I think Jackson’s upside offensively is limited to a point. Put another way, I don’t see him being the go-to guy on a team that is making runs in the playoff.

Which leads me to Draymond.

Green and Jackson are very, very different players. One is 6-foot-6 and the other is 6-foot-11. One is a terrific playmaker that ran some point in college and the other finished his college career with 39 assists and 62 turnovers. One is certifiably insane and the other is not.

But what Green does for Golden State is a pretty good template for what I think Jackson will be able to provide for an NBA franchise down the road, operating at the piece that brings everything together defensively while doing enough on the offensive end of the floor to keep defenders honest and help create space for his teammates.

Jackson will do it in a different way than Draymond does, but the effect he’ll have on the way a team can play will be similar.