June 8, 2018, 1:54 pm
The day before LeBron James dropped a 30-point triple-double in another NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors, he was asked to respond to criticism gleaned from his real-time reaction to J.R. Smith’s epic blunder in Game 1, a gaffe that squandered one of the finest individual performances of his career.
“Me? Me being criticized?” James, in a mocking voice, questioned back sarcastically. “No. You’re saying I got criticized for something, right? Nah, I don’t believe that. Not me.”
He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts, kept smiling, then answered with a typical brand of honesty that left his many detractors with additional fodder.
“I don’t care,” James said, shaking his head. “I don’t care at all. I mean, we’re in the NBA Finals. How much more picking up of my teammates do you want me to do?”
Down three games to none against defending champion Golden State, James is on the verge of losing his sixth NBA Finals – the number of championship series Michael Jordan won without a single loss, a straw man devotees of the Chicago Bulls legend always lead with or fall back on in discussions concerning the greatest basketball player of all time. Coming into his eighth consecutive Finals, with certainly his worst supporting cast since at least the top of the decade, there was a developing sense that James might be immune from the derision that accompanies him during relative failures of June.
Ending Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought by beating a 73-win juggernaut after falling behind 3-1 will be the defining accomplishment of James’ career no matter where it goes from here, and built him a mountain of goodwill on which to stand until his playing days are finished. James’ mind-blowing per-game averages of 33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists on 56.4 percent shooting in a five-game loss to Warriors one year later calcified his legacy more than anything else, even as a vocal minority pondered whether Kevin Durant, a fully deserving Finals MVP, had surpassed him in the game’s individual hierarchy. That premature debate was put on hold while James enjoyed perhaps his finest offensive season ever for the Cavaliers, and shelved for good after he dragged his inconsistent, undermanned team to the Finals with six 40-point efforts, two walk-off game-winners and a 35-point, 15-rebound, nine-assist outing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals at the Boston Celtics’ TD Garden.
There’s almost nothing more James could have done against the Warriors so far to put his team in better position to come away with a victory. Cleveland should have had it in the opener, when James went supernova en route to 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists on 19-of-32 from the field. If the Cavaliers couldn’t beat Golden State with James playing maybe the finest game of his life, just how were they going to do it? It’s unfair to submit that his play in the following two games simply wasn’t good enough; context is always necessary in basketball, but especially when a team’s best player combines for 62 points, 19 rebounds, 24 assists, four steals and two blocks while shooting just less than 50 percent in a pair of consecutive losses.
Part of the problem is that James has spoiled the basketball world with so many years of brilliance that it’s become monotonous. Unless he’s clearly playing a game for the ages, some will always cling to an irrational belief that James could have done more to prevent his team from losing. But his historic production in the Finals hasn’t left much room for that time-honored scrutiny, forcing those intent on making another Finals loss an indictment of James to seek other means of hollow justification.
Suddenly, a growing contingent of league followers have decided the Cavaliers’ supporting cast, the same one subject to a “Saturday Night Live” skit earlier in the playoffs making light of its reliance on James, is better than advertised. Kobe Bryant threw fuel on that fire before Game 3, sticking up for Cleveland’s grab bag of a roster in an interview with The New York Times.
“It seems like [James] has some good talent to me,” he said. He’s got [Kyle] Korver who’s a great shooter, J.R. Smith who has always been a solid player — we focus on his one mistake and that tends to overshadow all the things he’s done to help them win a championship before — you’ve got Kevin Love, who was an All-Star and an Olympian; Rodney Hood, who was a 17-point scorer in the Western Conference; you’ve got Tristan [Thompson] who is back to playing like he played a few years ago. He’s got some workable pieces there. I don’t understand how, in order to talk about how great LeBron is we need to [expletive] on everybody else. That’s not O.K. Those guys have talent. I don’t buy this whole thing that he’s playing with a bunch of garbage.”
None of that is debatable. There’s never been a 3-point shooter quite like Korver, and Smith was indeed integral to Cleveland winning its only title in 2016 and getting back to the Finals last season. Love was enjoying arguably his best season in wine and gold before breaking his left hand in late January. Many considered Hood the most significant acquisition at a trade deadline that turned over nearly half the Cavaliers’ roster, while Thompson, after falling out of the rotation entirely in March and the first round of the playoffs, has been an absolute terror on the offensive glass since the Conference Finals.
But focusing solely on accomplishments of the past ignores realities of the present. Time and circumstance inevitably affects superstars, let alone role players, or in Love’s case, a five-time All-Star. Basketball isn’t played in a vacuum.
Korver is 37 years old, and the Warriors’ switch-heavy defensive scheme combined with their surplus offensive firepower magnify his weaknesses to the extent that Ty Lue doesn’t trust him. Smith, shaken by initially coming off the bench this season, was barely replacement-level before the playoffs, and has somehow been worse on both ends of the floor since. Golden State has been targeting Love on offense dating back to the first time these teams met in the Finals, and effects of a thumb injury suffered during the first round continue to linger. Hood showed off the natural scoring chops in Game 3 that were evident during his time with the Utah Jazz, but Lue had already given up on him before he had a chance to make a lasting impact in the Finals. The same two-way issues that have always made Thompson decidedly limited, even in the afterglow of that 2016 championship, still exist, and the game’s evolution between now and then has only exacerbated them.
Bryant didn’t mention George Hill, a solid if unspectacular veteran beset by injuries since last spring, whose play has vacillated wildly from game to game over the past five weeks. He praised former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Jordan Clarkson earlier in the interview, telling The Times that a shot-happy, defense-averse combo guard who’s shooting 30.1 percent in the playoffs “has a lot of talent and potential.” Bryant forgot about Jeff Green, but so did 29 teams during free agency, finally, leaving the Cavaliers to sign him to a one-year deal worth the veteran’s minimum.
To be fair to Bryant, Cleveland absolutely has some varied offensive talent, the type that fits nicely next to a ball-dominant playmaking maestro like James. Notably absent on the Cavaliers is another player gifted enough to function as primary ball handler in the playoffs, though, a role first left vacant by Kyrie Irving and then Isaiah Thomas. The trade deadline made it obvious that James would enter the postseason shouldering a heavier offensive burden than any of his playoff runs since 2010, and he’s carried it more easily than anyone could have anticipated.
Still, James’ game-by-game dominance hasn’t led to the team-wide offensive prowess it did in years past. The Cavaliers’ offensive rating in the playoffs is a ho-hum 107.2, nearly 11 points per 100 possessions worse than last year’s number. It dips all the way down to 94.1 with James on the bench; Smith’s 101.0 off-court offensive rating is the team’s second-lowest. For Cleveland to compete with Golden State, the whole of its offense needed to be greater than the sum of its individual pieces. That just hasn’t come to fruition, a hardly unexpected reality that has little to do with James.
After connecting on 39.0 percent of their catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts during the regular season, the Cavaliers are shooting 29.2 percent on those looks against the Warriors. Love and Smith are a combined 5-of-27 on triples after passes coming from James. He averaged 17.6 potential assists per game coming into the Finals, and has bumped that number all the way up to 25.0 versus Golden State – over five more than John Wall‘s top-ranked postseason mark. James is shooting 52.5 percent from the floor against the Warriors; his teammates are shooting 39.3 percent. He’s made 23 free throws, three fewer than his teammates, and has over half of Cleveland’s assists.
In January 2017, toward the end of a 7-8 calendar month, James publicly lamented how top heavy the Cavaliers were, telling the media, “We need a ******* playmaker.” Deron Williams was brought in four weeks later, and played well for Cleveland off the bench before completely falling apart in the Finals. James gave a similar quote the day after Game 3, but didn’t show the frustration he did a year and-a-half prior. At 33, he’s been resigned to life as his team’s first, second and third ball handler for months.
“Obviously, we haven’t had many playmakers throughout the course of the season,” James said. “We had some early on, and we made the trades and things of that nature.”
But keeping Dwyane Wade or Derrick Rose around certainly wouldn’t have helped the Cavaliers’ defense, which is their biggest problem in the first place. Last season, Cleveland became just the second team since 1970-71 to make the playoffs despite finishing with a defensive rating ranked in the 20s, per Sporting News, joining the 2014-15 Cavaliers. Lue’s team finished second-to-last in defensive rating in 2017-18, barely ahead of the Phoenix Suns. Not only is this year’s iteration of Cleveland its worst defensive outfit of both James eras, but it’s the worst defensive team to ever make the Finals by a wide, wide margin. Before James went back home, the 2000-2001 Lakers, pioneer switch-flippers, had the lowest-ranked defensive rating, 19th, of any Finals participant.
James warrants some of the blame for his team’s defensive ineptitude. He’s the foremost tone-setter in basketball, and took his defensive apathy to new heights this season. James, like the Cavaliers, has been better during the playoffs, but the habits he established from October to April have hardly vanished altogether. Even if they had, it’s not like James – or any player in basketball, for that matter – is good enough defensively to mask the widespread deficiencies of Cleveland’s personnel. This team has no designated stopper, no rim-protector and lacks the like-sized athletes necessary to reap the inherent benefits of switching one-through-five.
The Cavaliers’ best defensive lineup, Hill-Smith-James-Green-Thompson, isn’t stingy enough to string together stops against the Warriors. Of course, no team in history could when Curry and Durant take turns making highlight-reel cases for Finals MVP. But a year ago, Cleveland could at least be confident knowing it had the horses to mostly keep pace with the Warriors on the other end. That’s not true this time around, no matter who Lue plays. Case in point: Golden State has scored 34 points and shot 70 percent in the 13 minutes Korver and Love have played together in the Finals.
The Cavaliers were always doomed against the Warriors. Even if they’d managed to win Game 1 at Oracle, James and company would still have been decided underdogs in this series. The time of objectively and forever-flawed teams winning a championship is over. Not only does Cleveland lack the talent of Golden State, it’s also absent the cohesion and collective intellect that allows the best teams to function as something more.
With his 15th season almost over and second tenure in Cleveland on the precipice, a reflective James is taking that reality into account.
“I felt like my first stint here I just didn’t have the level of talent to compete versus the best teams in the NBA, let alone just Boston,” he said on Thursday. “When you looked at [Rajon] Rondo and KG and Paul [Pierce] and Ray, you knew they were great basketball players. But not only great basketball players, you could see their minds were in it, too, when you were playing them. They were calling out sets. Rondo was calling out sets every time you come down. It was like, OK, this is bigger than basketball. So not only do you have to have the talent, you have to have the minds as well.”
James changed the league forever when he left the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in July 2010, setting a precedent that Durant took advantage of six years later. Unlike his three-time Finals counterpart, though, James has overcome the inevitable backlash that comes with leaving a static franchise in flyover country for a super-team on the coast. A similar move may be coming, and it shouldn’t be hard to see why.
This Cleveland team never had a realistic chance to win a title, and has no realistic prospects of the upward mobility necessary to dethrone the Warriors. James should leave once again. If he doesn’t, James won’t just be sacrificing an opportunity to be the last man standing in June, but also face the same round of baseless criticism some, it’s abundantly clear now, will never let him escape.
May 29, 2020, 7:43 pmEric GordonSG, Houston Rockets
Rockets guard Eric Gordon has improved his diet, focused on sprints, and has apparently shed 12 pounds in the process, according to Kelly Iko of The Athletic.
Gordon has battled knee ailments for essentially his whole career and has dealt with his fair share of nagging injuries this season as well. Losing weight to create a lighter frame would seem sensible, especially with the knee issues. The Rockets, remember, fully adopted the "small ball" lineup and move fast so Gordon is smart to keep his endurance and fitness at high levels. He's going to have to play well and make shots for the Rockets when the NBA returns to action, otherwise coach Mike D'Antoni won't be able to justify giving Gordon minutes. We don't anticipate much fantasy value out of him if and when the league starts back up.
Source: The Athletic
May 29, 2020, 6:03 pmLeBron JamesSF, Los Angeles Lakers
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN is reporting that the NBA is planning for a Board of Governors vote on Thursday, during which they are expected to approve Adam Silver's proposal for re-starting the season in Orlando.
The trend lines are all moving in this direction, and this adds another bullet point on the schedule as the league prepares for launching games on July 31. Adam Silver has been able to bridge any divides between ownership and the players, and has been taking into account all his key constituent's views as we approach approval of a plan for moving forward. We still have plenty of items to resolve before we see game action, but the NBA is gaining momentum as these details come into place.
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter
May 29, 2020, 4:44 pmBradley BealSG, Washington Wizards
On Friday, the Wizards resumed holding voluntary workouts at their practice facilities.
The Wizards have joined a chorus of teams that are returning in limited capacities to their facilities at this point. The NBA as a whole is continuing its march towards the resumption of play with a target date of July 31 now established. The District of Columbia also entered phase one of reopening today, and it makes sense for the team to proceed on a similar trajectory.
Source: Candace Buckner on Twitter
May 29, 2020, 4:03 pmJulius RandlePF, New York Knicks
Part of the Knicks' off-season thinking is to shape the roster around RJ Barrett, and it unclear where Julius Randle will fit in those plans.
Barrett and Randle have similar offensive styles, as they typically have an advantage relying upon their strength to attack the basket, but neither has a component deep ball at this stage in their careers. As Barrett is the younger option it makes sense that the Knicks want to sign shooters to give him more space to operate with. Randle's lousy percentages and turnovers has made for a disappointing season with the Knicks thus far, and Barrett will also need to make some strides in the shooting department to become a 12-team asset. Randle is under contract for next season is owed at least $4,000,000 in 2021-22.
May 29, 2020, 3:46 pmJayson TatumSF, Boston Celtics
On Friday, the Celtics' announced that their practice facilities would reopen on June 1.
That leaves us with four NBA teams without access to their facilities. Things are beginning to accelerate throughout the league as teams ramp up activities in hopes of resuming competition in Orlando on July 31. So far so good, but the NBA still has many hurdles to overcome on the path to resuming the season.
Source: Celtics PR on Twitter
May 29, 2020, 3:40 pmRJ BarrettSF, New York Knicks
The Knicks reopened their practice facility for voluntary workouts on Friday.
Another step in the right direction for the NBA's return to action at the end of July. It's still unclear if the Knicks will even be involved in whatever plan is agreed upon, but it is good to learn that the players can now access their facilities in New York. Only five team facilities have not opened up in some capacity at this point.
Source: Knicks PR on Twitter
May 29, 2020, 3:15 pmLeBron JamesSF, Los Angeles Lakers
On a call with the Board of Governors on Friday, Adam Silver and the league office confirmed July 31 as a target date for the resumption of the NBA season, according to a report from Shams Charania.
We have to imagine that this is just one of the possible options on the table, as the league still has much to figure out. Charania adds that the league has four scenarios for the return: 16 teams move directly to the playoffs, 20 teams engage in group/stage play, 22 teams have games to determine seeding with a play-in tournament, and all 30 teams reconvene for a 72-game season with a play-in tournament. It's seemed unlikely that we'll have a full 30-team return given the stated priorities for player safety. There are still tons of logistical hurdles to clear but the NBA is getting its ducks in a row for a potential return.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter
May 27, 2020, 9:06 pmAndre IguodalaSF, Miami Heat
Andre Iguodala returned to South Florida after living in California since the NBA season was suspended.
Iguodala returning to the market where his team is could mean that he believes team workouts will begin soon. However, there is no official timetable on when team workouts will begin and Jimmy Butler has yet to return to Miami.
Source: Ira Winderman on Twitter
May 27, 2020, 7:52 pmZach LaVineSG, Chicago Bulls
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reported that the Bulls were cleared by the Governor of Illinois and are in talks with city officials to open practice facilities on Friday for voluntary workouts that would follow the NBA guidelines.
The NBA's guidelines currently state that a maximum of four players are allowed in the facility at any given time and there can only be one player per hoop. The Bulls are currently eight games behind the Orlando Magic for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls may not play again this season given how far behind they are in the standings and the recent reports of proposals to not continue the regular season.
Source: K.C. Johnson on Twitter
May 27, 2020, 7:08 pmLuka DoncicPG-SF, Dallas Mavericks
Marc Stein of the New York Times has reported that the Mavs plan to open their practice facility on Thursday.
This news would make the Mavs the 23rd team to have their facilities open for "voluntary and socially distanced player workouts". Continue to monitor the wire as we should learn more about the potential of the league resuming in early June.
Source: Marc Stein on Twitter