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Love Him or Hate Him, LeBron Is Just LeBron

Doing things his way, LeBron James has long ceased trying to live up to our expectations, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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Ironically, despite his gargantuan frame, the giant managed to silently and meekly creep to his seat. With a heart as heavy as his legs, those blinding, beaming lights and flashing bulbs had difficulty finding his eyes. LeBron James found refuge under his baseball cap.

“Obviously, it’s a dramatic situation to be in,” James said after letting out a boisterous sigh.

“But it is what it is.”

A departure from the norm, James didn’t appear as his mighty self. He wasn’t certain, he wasn’t excited and he wasn’t confident or basking in sweet victory.

Yet still, despite finding himself on the precipice of his fifth loss in the NBA Finals, LeBron James was still LeBron James.

True to himself, still, after all these years, he was still The Man In The Arena.

* * * * * *

About 13 months after his term as President of the United States expired, then-President Theodore Roosevelt had awoken one spring morning in Paris. Nine years earlier, he had improbably inherited a United States of America that was reeling after the assassination of President William McKinley, Jr.

Valiantly, President Roosevelt assumed the office, and despite dissension from within his own party, admirably laid the foundation for what would become an economic genesis for the country.

And on this day in Paris—on April 23, 1910—President Roosevelt told the world something quite important.

In a speech entitled Citizenship In A Republic that he delivered at the University of Paris that day, he delivered a message that has echoed throughout American history and has been applicable across all walks of life. The message was incredibly simple, yet certainly profound.

Worry not with your critics, the President said.

Today, LeBron James reminds you of the same.

With his team’s season hanging in the balance, James made a fateful decision to refrain from taking a shot that could have clinched Game 3 for his Cavaliers. That he passed, of course, caused an immediate uproar from those that dissect and criticize his every move.

“I don’t even really care,” James said of his critics.

“One of my favorite quotes, when I really stopped caring about what people say, is Theodore Roosevelt, ‘The Man in the Arena,’” he said. “So if you read that, you’ll see where I’m at right now in my life.”

In “The Man in the Arena,” President Roosevelt, using his own experience as a lens, encourages mankind to pursue their own goals and their own greatness on their own terms. Win or lose, those that haven’t walked a mile in your shoes will criticize your decisions and process.

In the end, the public should revere the man that’s actually in the arena, for his foray requires true courage.

* * * * * *

Seemingly larger than life itself, James was a household name by the time he was 17 years old. He stood head and shoulders above each of his peers, and it was then that he began to draw comparisons to Michael Jordan.

Certain to be the next big thing, James embraced our attention, our critiques and our expectations.

Still, though it all, he remained something remarkable. Through it all, he has simply remained LeBron James.

Over the years, we have failed to typecast him. His all-around game was reminiscent of Oscar Robertson, but his passing ability and court vision rivaled that of Magic Johnson. He wasn’t a perimeter player necessarily, but his post-game had been subpar. He lacked the selfishness of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and, to his core, stuck to the simple belief that there was no “I” in team—sometimes, to his detriment.

And even as the ghost of Michael Jordan appears before him—even as the whispers of James and his mighty legacy supplanting some of the greatest players ever grow louder—James has remained the same.

Through it all, he has continued to play the game his way, on his own terms.

So, with his team trailing 0-2 in the 2017 NBA Finals, James saw Kevin Love and J.R. Smith set him staggered screens. Extended out to the half court logo, with his team leading by two points, with an opportunity to potentially seal the game and preserve an opportunity at back-to-back championships, James saw Draymond Green in front of him. He raised his right hand, instructing Smith to stay put. He took three dribbles with his left hand before crossing back over to his right. After he and Green played a perimeter game of cat-and-mouse, James drove to his left, making a beeline toward the basket. By the time he had gotten to the free throw line, James had Green on his hip and Kevin Durant standing outside of the restricted area. With Stephen Curry cheating off of Kyle Korver momentarily, Kevin Love managed to strategically stand between Korver and Curry, effectively giving Korver a screen that would give him the time and separation to get off what would have been a game-clinching three point look.

The play worked to perfection, only Korver couldn’t deliver.

Soon thereafter, Kevin Durant did.

Even the most ardent James supporters grow frustrated with his willingness to cede those moments to his teammates. As James continues to draw comparisons to both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, it has been noted—and perhaps rightfully so—that neither would have made that pass in that situation.

James, on the other hand, would do it again.

“If I could have the play over again, I would come off a three screen situation,” James said before describing exactly how the play unfolded.

“… I would see Kyle Korver in the corner, one of the greatest three-point shooters in this league’s history, and give him an opportunity in the short corner,” he said.

“I would do the same exact thing.”

James knows who he is, and long ago refused to try to play by anybody else’s rules. He leaves the debates of his place in history to us and puts adherence to his basketball principles above all else.

In short, while still playing the game to win, James truly plays as if he has nothing to prove.

That, above all else, is what makes him remarkable.

* * * * * *

For more than 15 years, the world has told LeBron to be Michael Jordan and has dared him to compete with Kobe Bryant. Pundits have implored him to play selfishly and revert to hero basketball in tight, waning moments. Through it all, James has shrugged off those suggestions and continued to play his game, his way and on his terms.

He has taken the words of President Roosevelt to heart and, long ago, decided to worry not with his critics.

Over the course of his 14-year NBA career, as James has accumulated a career accolades most-wanted list and steadily ascended the NBA’s Mount Rushmore, we have spent far too much time trying to fit him into a box rather than simply appreciate him for what and who he is. Because “greatness” isn’t defined, the only objective measure used to make inter-generational comparisons are championship rings. Less attention is paid to things like the amount of teams in the league vying for championships, the skill level of the game’s elite players or the division of conferences. What’s most unfortunate is that of all things, when trying to define greatness, the least amount of attention is paid to how a player actually plays the game.

One could argue, though, that it is there that true greatness is most revealed. The NBA had only 18 teams as late as 1974. Fewer teams and no free agency, one could argue, diminishes the credibility of the 13 championship rings that Bill Russell has. During the time that Michael Jordan dominated the league, the Western Conference, one could argue, wasn’t as talented as their Eastern counterparts. As for Kobe Bryant, three of his five championships were won with Shaquille O’Neal, and O’Neal was named the Most Valuable Player in each of those three Finals appearance.

In other words, if one were to dissect any all-time great and the circumstances under which they found success, it would be easy to discredit them.

James has long understood this, which is precisely why he has long ceased trying to play by everyone else’s rules.

As a true team-first player, James took just as much joy in feeding Mike Miller and Shane Battier and watching Ray Allen and Kyrie Irving’s fateful three pointers as he did putting the Spurs away in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals.

Extended out to center court, with his heart racing, his sweat-soaked jersey clung to his frame. With his mouth dry and his breath short, James looked up at the ticking clock. He made his move around Mario Chalmers’ screen, and although Tony Parker showed, Kawhi Leonard was slow to switch back out onto him. James had an opening, and despite being regarded as a poor shooter, pulled the trigger on a 20-footer that found the bottom of the net.

With a four-point lead, his Miami HEAT would eventually find their way to victory in one of the finest Game 7 performances we have ever seen: 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.

What truly lies at the root of the crowd that contends that James isn’t “clutch” is nothing more than a false perception. The reason the public doesn’t believe James to be good in clutch situations is less about the extent to which he has hit big shots than it is the fact that he is just as willing to cede them to his teammates.

If there is a fault to find in that, it would be that James may be underestimating the extent to which others have the capacity to come up big in the most trying moments.

Just because Korver is a 43 percent three point shooter over the course of his career doesn’t mean that he can convert a game-clinching shot in the NBA Finals.

Above all, though, what makes James truly special is his willingness to find out. He is a rare example of a superstar player who can live with the results, so long as he makes what he feels is the right play.

Having taken each of two franchises to four NBA Finals, James has dominated the game in a way that no other player in the contemporary era has. His unimpressive record in those Finals appearances, truly, is more an indictment on the individuals that he had surrounding him than they are of his individual greatness. Despite that, he always has been and always will be willing to trust those very teammates, even when everything is on the line.

In the same way that Stephen Curry made it cool for a generation to shoot step back jump shots and Vince Carter made it cool for a generation to boost their verticals, James made it cool to share the wealth and to be willing to live and die by giving others an opportunity to bask in the spotlight.

And depending on how you define greatness, in a way, one could certainly argue that his refusal to play by anyone else’s rules truly makes James the man in the arena.

Without question, James is very different from both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. And that’s okay. He has long since stopped trying to live up to their standards.

Frankly, it’s probably about time we stop expecting him to.

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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes

Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.

Spencer Davies

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Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.

Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.

We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.

It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.

“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”

You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.

In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.

So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?

“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”

Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.

“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”

Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.

Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.

“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.

“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”

As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.

But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.

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NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year

After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.

David Yapkowitz

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The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.

But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.

This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.

“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”

Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.

His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.

“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.

“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”

It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.

He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.

“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”

While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.

For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.

“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”

And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.

“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”

He’s certainly off to a good start.

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Mitchell Robinson May Prove Competence of Scott Perry

Scott Perry is still fairly new on the job, but it’s impossible to argue with the early returns.

Moke Hamilton

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With some eye-popping performances, the neophyte simultaneously caught the attention of the New York Knicks and the observing eyes in Las Vegas.

Sure, merely a few weeks ago, he was largely considered an unknown quantity, but after an impressive stint at the Vegas Summer League, we all know his name.

It’s Mitchell Robinson.

Like his fellow rookie Kevin Knox, in short order, Robinson has caused quite a bit of a stir.

For Scotty Perry, though, he’s more than just another promising prospect; he’s the latest entry on the list of things that the newly hired general manager has gotten right. 

As players like Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas accept contracts worth barely enough to buy LeBron James lunch, the predictions of a “nuclear winter” for NBA free agents seem to have mostly come to fruition.

For the past two summers, general managers and team executives have spent their money as if it were on fire, and as a result, we’ve seen many of the league’s teams watch their flexibility go up in smoke.

Since hiring Perry, the Knicks have done the opposite.

Time and time again, the message tossed around internally at Penn Plaza has mirrored what we’ve been told publicly—the Knicks believe they will have a serious shot at signing a marquee free agent in 2019 and have put their emphasis on shedding salary to the best of their abilities.

It took all of one summer league game for us to learn that the club had signed Robinson to a team-friendly four-year contract. According to the New York Post, the deal is only guaranteed for three years and $4.8 million. If Robinson comes anywhere near the productivity he showed in those few performances, though, the value and return on investment will be remarkably high.

If you’re keeping count, let the record fairly reflect that among Perry’s major moves for the Knicks have been trading Carmelo Anthony, hiring David Fizdale, drafting Kevin Knox and Robinson, and strategically managing his cap situation so that he could offer Robinson a contract that was so advantageous to the Knicks that some believe Robinson fired his agent as a result.

With the Knicks, Robinson will have to earn playing time and beat out Enes Kanter and Luke Kornet for minutes, but Kanter isn’t considered to be a core member for the club’s future and Kornet hasn’t exactly appeared to be the next coming of Dwight Howard, so for the rebuilding Knicks, the task doesn’t appear that difficult.

What this all means in the end is that Knox and Robinson will combine to earn just $5.4 million next season. Yet together, they’ll carry the hopes of a billion dollar franchise on their backs.

Still, you don’t need to be able to count to a billion to understand that the ROI on Robinson could be exceptional. And it’s those crafty acquisitions that could help the Knicks maintain the space they’ll need to bring a superstar to Gotham City.

Of course, time will tell, but on the continuum of unknown quantity to certain conclusion, the best you can hope for is a positive sign. Robinson, like Knox, has given us over a dozen.

Truth be told, Perry has, too. And when you realize that the selection that the club used to grab Robinson was a critical piece of the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City—a trade executed by Perry—that statement becomes all the more credible.

* * * * * *

It’s been quite some time since the Knicks had two rookies who opened eyes the way Knox and Robinson have. What’s been most pleasing about the two, however, have been the ways in which they complement one another on the basketball court.

In Vegas, Knox has impressed mostly with what he’s done on the ball, while Robinson has for what he’s accomplished off of it. The instincts and timing that Robinson has in conjunction with his athleticism are quite reminiscent of Marcus Camby.

In hindsight, we can fairly proclaim an in-prime Camby to have been ahead of his time. Camby was the prototype to which players like Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan aspired.

As a big man, Camby was one of the few players in the NBA who could capably guard all five positions on the basketball court and wasn’t at the mercy of an opposing point guard when switched out on a pick-and-roll. Nobody closed space from the weakside better than Camby, and few centers in the league were able to run out and contest jumpers like him. His nimbleness and second jump ability were remarkable for a man his size, and it didn’t take long for him to find his niche playing alongside more offensively talented players such as Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson.

We don’t know if Robinson himself will succeed in the NBA, but we do know that his archetype is the kind that does. So much of what gets young players drafted and paid in the NBA is about physics. If a guy can do one or two things better than other players his size, the job of his coaches and front office is to find ways to maximize those advantages and fit them within a team concept to exploit inferior players at his position.

It truly isn’t rocket science. When you think back even over the course of recent history, ask yourself how long it took for the world to recognize and extol the virtues of the likes of LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis and even Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons. While each representing an extreme case, the truly impactful players are able to utilize their gifts to dominate and can usually do so from day one. Certainly, they can’t do it everyday, but the potential is there and it’s evident from jump.

The most you’re gonna get from summer league is a young stud showing you that he has some exploitable advantage over his competitors. For Knox, it’s his combination of ranginess and a better than advertised nose for the ball. For Robinson, it’s the incredible agility that an extended absence from the game doesn’t seem to have blunted.

The concept of exploitable advantage is where the Golden State Warriors have run circles around the rest of the league. And although an extreme example, they are the specimen of what a team full of those types look like.

So no, while you can’t conclude that Robinson is going to end up being anything near the player that Marcus Camby was, what you can conclude is that he has the physical gifts to be effective. Whether he ends up fulfilling that potential will ultimately boil down to what Robinson has inside of him and what David Fizdale is able to do to bring it out.

Rest assured, though, to this point, Scott Perry has certainly done his job. That much is a fact.

* * * * * *

Of all words in the English language, “irony” and its adjective (“ironic”) are among those that are most often misused—irony is often confused with coincidence.

In its simplest term, irony is meant to describe a situation where there’s an occurrence that’s the opposite of what should have been expected.

In other words, back in 2015, just a few weeks after Carmelo Anthony dropped a career-high 62 points on the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden, a reporter asked him whether it was “ironic” that the Hornets also yielded 61 points to his buddy LeBron James in Miami.

That wasn’t ironic. That was just Charlotte.

On the other hand, irony was more along the lines of the Denver Nuggets seemingly becoming a better and more cohesive team after Anthony’s talents had been traded to New York. He was the team’s best player and has since proven to be a surefire Hall of Famer, yet they improved without him.

One could argue it to be ironic that Kyrie Irving welcomed a trade to the Boston Celtics after spending years battling them, or that fans of the Los Angeles Lakers have actually begun calling LeBron James the King of LA while Kobe Bryant still flies in a helicopter over Orange County.

Most appropriately, though, for a fan of the New York Knicks, irony is knowing that, despite Kristaps Porzingis being on the shelf and the Knicks not signing or trading for any big named player, there’s probably more reason to be optimistic about the club’s future than there has been in recent memory.

Yea. That’s ironic. The Knicks have always been looking for their savior—before Carmelo Anthony, it was Stephon Marbury. Infinite fanfare and declarations of grandeur. All for naught. In it all, who would have thought that the franchise’s savior could end up being Scott Perry?

Like Knox and Robinson, it’s still a bit early to certainly declare that Perry is who will lead the Knicks from the abyss.

But just like Knox and Robinson, to this point, it’d be quite difficult to argue with the early returns.

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