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.
December 9, 2018, 11:14 pmDeMarcus Cousins - C - Golden State Warriors
DeMarcus Cousins is expected to practice with the Santa Cruz Warriors of the G-League on Monday.
Cousins continues to work his way back into shape after suffering an Achilles tear last season. He's aiming to return around Christmas and all reports about his progress have been positive so far. Him working in an actual team setting is another big step in the process, even if it is in the G-League. He's worth scooping up if you think you can make it through the next month without production from one of your roster spots.
Source: Marc J. Spears on Twitter
December 9, 2018, 10:22 pmFrank Ntilikina - G - New York Knicks
Frank Ntilikina scored 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting with four 3-pointers as the Knicks lost to the Hornets on Sunday.
He outplayed starter Emmanuel Mudiay, who scored six points with three rebounds and four assists on 3-of-9 shooting. The Knicks’ point guard situation is a mess and minutes change frequently, so neither of them are worth owning in fantasy.
December 9, 2018, 10:19 pmNoah Vonleh - F - New York Knicks
Noah Vonleh did not play well against the Hornets on Sunday with only three points on 1-of-5 shooting, but he did contribute 10 rebounds and a career-high nine assists.
Vonleh has seen consistent minutes as the starting power forward for the Knicks and his value currently sits right outside the top-100. He is a must-own in deep leagues and will provide solid late-middle round value this season. However, head coach David Fizdale's rotations can change at any moment, which means Vonleh's minutes can change so keep an eye on the Knicks' rotation from game-to-game.
December 9, 2018, 10:15 pmKyle Lowry - G - Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry fell to a new low with his 0-for-5 shooting night on Sunday against the Bucks.
This is the first time in Lowry's career that he's been held under 10 points for five straight games. To call this a slump would be unfair. Luckily as a point guard, Lowry does more than just score and has been returning top-120 value over his last four games despite shooting under 15 percent during that stretch. Lowry finished tonight's game with zero points, five boards, seven assists and a block in 34 minutes.
Source: Chris Black on Twitter
December 9, 2018, 10:14 pmTrevor Ariza - F - Phoenix Suns
The Lakers are one of the teams making a run at Trevor Ariza, they're currently in discussions to swing a three-team deal.
Ariza might struggle as a fantasy asset in Los Angeles given how many swingmen they have. If you own Ariza you're hoping that he finds his way back to the Rockets. The Suns are hoping to get a young guard and a draft pick in any deal for Ariza and the Lakers seem to be searching for a suitor willing to take on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter
December 9, 2018, 10:14 pmMitchell Robinson - C - New York Knicks
It was reported that Mitchell Robinson suffered a shoulder injury on Suday before halftime of the Knicks game.
Robinson has played his regular allotment of minutes in the second half and hasn't looked hurt at all. Maybe we'll learn more on this after the game.
Source: Stefan Bondy on Twitter
December 9, 2018, 10:13 pmEnes Kanter - C - New York Knicks
Enes Kanter did not play well on Sunday with six points and four rebounds on 3-of-6 shooting in 18 minutes in a loss to the Hornets.
He is the best player to own on the Knicks roster right now at top-70 value, but people were hoping for more from Kanter and David Fizdale's rotations are crushing those hopes. He will have inconsistent performances due to varying minutes, but he will still provide middle-round value as long as he is typically seeing minutes in the 20's.
December 9, 2018, 10:10 pmKevin Knox - F - New York Knicks
Kevin Knox saw 41 minutes on Sunday and put up 26 points and 15 rebounds on 10-of-25 shooting in a loss to the Hornets.
He made four 3-pointers and added on steal to the box score as well. This is one of his best games of the season, but he is still not worth owning in fantasy due to the possibility that head coach David Fizdale could play him low minutes next game. The rotations are inconsistent for the Knicks and makes owning any player a difficult task. Mario Hezonja was awful in this game with zero points on 0-of-3 shooting in five minutes. Look to see if Fizdale starts Knox over Hezonja going forward.
December 9, 2018, 10:05 pmJeremy Lamb - G - Charlotte Hornets
Jeremy Lamb scored 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting in 28 minutes as the Hornets beat the Knicks on Sunday.
Lamb continues to play well and is cruising to top-50 value on the season. He appeared a bit shaky to start the season, but his buy-low window quickly closed and he started returning early-middle round value. Credit to owners who bought low on him or remained patient after his rocky start as his solid play is definitely paying off.
December 9, 2018, 10:01 pmCody Zeller - F/C - Charlotte Hornets
Cody Zeller had an all-around good game on Sunday with 12 points, seven rebounds and four defensive stats on 5-of-5 shooting as the Hornets beat the Knicks.
The four defensive stats were three steals and one block, and he was also able to add two assists as well as shoot a perfect 2-of-2 from the line. Marvin Williams added 13 points and five rebounds on 4-of-9 shooting. Both of these guys will have to be on top of their games for the Hornets to stay competitive in the East. Zeller is the preferred option to own in fantasy as of right now.