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NBA Daily: As Usual, LeBron James Is The Last Man Standing

LeBron James has proven a major point this season. The throne still belongs to him.

Moke Hamilton

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Typically, players don’t get healthier as they age.

But as we’ve been reminded, time and time again, LeBron James is far from typical.

On Wednesday night, with the top-seeded Toronto Raptors paying his Cleveland Cavaliers a visit, the idea leading into the game was that the Raptors—buoyed by the contributions of a supporting cast that’ll give Dwane Casey’s team what they’ve been missing—are ready to contend with James.

Instead, they ended up watching the throne, just as the rest of the Eastern Conference has for the past seven years.

When it was all said and done, James had turned in a game that was the first of its kind in NBA history—35 points, 17 assists, seven rebounds, zero turnovers. He also shot 11-for-19 from the field. Until he had done so against the Raptors, no player in NBA history had ever scored 35 points and dished out 15 assists without turning the ball over.

Incredibly, even as James inches toward 1,200 career games and his 34th birthday, it’s fair to say that he’s the best player he’s even been. His efficiency is off the charts, his range has become more consistent and, now more than ever, he’s overcome adversity to have his team in position to win the Eastern Conference for a mind-numbing eighth consecutive year.

What’s most impressive about James and his 2017-18 campaign, however, is that among the best players in the league, he’s already the last man standing.

There’s something that Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and pretty much every other NBA superstar has in common with one another—everyone’s missed at least one game.

Entering play on March 25, James is 72 for 72.

On a personal level, I’ve had a front row seat to James’ career. From his being drafted in Madison Square Garden back in 2003 to each one of his championship runs, I’ve covered it and have had a front row seat.

During the 2017 NBA Finals, his growth, maturity and intelligence were never on better display than when he quoted Theodore Roosevelt in response to a question posed to him.

I’ve been saying it for a few years, and this past season, others in the media have finally begun to catch on.

LeBron James is coming for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Without help from Ms. Cleo, obviously, the proclamation is more a hope than it is a guarantee.

Entering play this season, James needed 9,571 points to surpass Kareem, and even after scoring 1,972 points through the first 72 games of the season, he’ll still enter play on March 25 trailing Kareem by 7,599 points. Still, unless something catastrophic happens, LeBron will score 2,000 this season and will accomplish the feat for the first time since he returned to Cleveland. The last time he scored as many as 2,000 points in a single season was his final campaign in Miami.

Consider this: entering play this season, his 15th, James had played a grand total of 93.7 percent of the games over the first 14 years of his career. By virtue of playing all 72 of his eligible games this season, LeBron’s career games played percentage has increased to 94.1.

By the time the season is over, James will have somewhere in the neighborhood of 31,000 career points.

About 7,400 points behind Kareem, if James were able to score 25 points per game from here on out, he’d need slightly less than four more seasons to eclipse the NBA’s all-time scoring leader.

Sure, it still seems a long way off, but James has already taken us places we’ve never been. And if nothing else, he’s already proven to be the most durable player a generation has ever seen.

Best bet, the chase for Kareem is his quiet motivation.

* * * * * *

As the Cavaliers get set to enter yet another postseason with an opportunity to win the Eastern Conference again, from Matthew Dellavedova to Timofey Mozgov to Iman Shumpert, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving, LeBron has been the only constant.

Night in, night out, he laces up his sneakers.

And as the other contenders have each dealt with injury issues and questions concerning their durability, he continues to be the epitome of resilience.

In more ways than one, James continues to be the standard. On Wednesday night in Cleveland, he gave the Raptors a not so subtle reminder of that fact.

Sure, it may have been just another regular season game in March. And yes, the NBA Championship won’t be won until June. But make no mistake of it, James continues to be what every other superstar in the NBA aspires to.

At the end of the day, LeBron was the last man standing, and we’d better get used to it.

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NBA Daily: Kawhi Leonard Would Look Good In a Knicks Uniform… In 2019

The Knicks need to take a page out of the Sixers’ book… and trust the process.

Moke Hamilton

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Don’t get me wrong, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving would both look great in New York Knick uniforms.

Just not now. 

Let’s be frank—only a fool does the same thing over and over and expects different results.

Seven years ago, the Knicks the made mistake of trading their farm for a superstar caliber small forward. His name is Carmelo Anthony, and we all know how that story ended.

If you want to make the argument that Leonard is a better player than Anthony was at 27 years old, that’s your right, but one thing that not even Max Kellerman could argue is that smart teams simply don’t trade assets for players they could ultimately end up getting for free. That’s exactly why Paul George spent last season flanking Russell Westbrook instead of arguing with LaVar Ball.

So if Leonard or Irving wants to eventually take up residence in New York City, they can prove it. In 2019.

If there’s one thing the Knicks historically imprudent front office should have learned from Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, it’s that. This summer, after hiring David Fizdale, Scott Perry will have another opportunity to prove that the job at Penn Plaza isn’t too big for him, so it’ll be interesting to see whether he even publicly entertains the idea of attempting to make a splash or if he continues to hold steadfast to the belief that there are not shortcuts on the route to contention.

The right play for the Knicks this summer is to follow the route that the Lakers took as it relates to Paul George—refrain from dealing valuable assets for players that you could sign for free. Danny Ainge hit home runs with Gordon Hayward and Al Horford and by essentially adding those talented players to an existing core of young talent—and more importantly, refraining from acquiring either via trade—the Celtics now have an embarrassment of riches.

The Knicks don’t have those kinds of problems, and as it stands, have little aside from Kristaps Porzinigis going for them. With the Latvian unicorn expected to miss the majority of next season, they’ll probably have a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. That could be paired nicely with Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and the ninth overall pick that they’ll have in the 2018 draft.

In other words, one year from now, the Knicks will have four of their own lottery picks under contract—Porzingis, Ntilikina, and whichever players they will have selected in 2018 and 2019. Between now and then, the team would be best served scouring the G-League and overseas markets to find cheap help that can contribute at the NBA level. Let the young guys play, let them develop and then carry them into the summer of 2019 with a clear plan in place.

That type of prudent management will not only help the Knicks in the long run, it will go a long way toward convincing soon-to-be free agents and player agents that Perry and his staff actually know what they’re doing.

If they play things right, and if the team managed to unload either Courtney Lee or Joakim Noah, they could open up the very real possibility of being able to afford both Leonard and Irving as free agents in July 2019. Imagine that.

From where most people sit, Irving seems to have an ideal situation in Boston, and his entertaining the idea of taking his talents elsewhere seems curious, at best… But so did the choice of leaving LeBron James.

Irving has been consistently rumored as having real interest in signing with the Knicks when he’s able to  test the market next July, and depending on who you ask, there does seem to be a genuine level of concern in Boston that Irving could opt to take his talents elsewhere.

Growing up in the shadows of Madison Square Garden, the young guard knows better than most what winning in New York City would do for his legacy. At the end of the day, would one championship in New York make Irving a legendary figure among the likes of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? Probably not. But one thing we can call agree on is that winning in a single championship in New York would do much more for Irving than winning a single championship in Cleveland or even a single title in Boston.

As it stands, fair or not, history will always look at Irving as the “other” player on James’ championship Cavaliers team even though he was the one who made the biggest shot of James’ career.

And with the success of the Celtics this past season, truth be told, Irving helping lead the Celtics to a championship with the team’s current core in place wouldn’t necessarily cement his legacy in the way it would have had we not seen Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown show signs of being franchise-caliber players.

Because Irving is a shoot-first guard, he’ll continue to unfairly carry the reputation of being someone who doesn’t make his teammates better. Because of the circumstances, he’s now in a bit of a catch-22. He’ll get less of the credit than he’ll deserve if the Celtics manage to win an NBA title and more of the blame than he’ll deserve if they fail to.

Still, even if Irving and/or Leonard end up elsewhere, the summer of 2019 will feature other free agents including Kemba Walker—the only “true” All-Star caliber New Yorker in the NBA—and Long Island product Tobias Harris. Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kevin Love and Nikola Vucevic, too.

One thing we know for sure in the NBA: there will always be marquee free agents. The Knicks just need to do a better job of being able to attract them.

So this summer, if Perry wants to continue to earn favor with Knicks fans with even half a brain, the best thing to do might actually be to do nothing.

In other words, if the Knicks have truly learned anything from the futility of their recent past, it’s that they should try to be more like Magic Johnson’s Lakers than like the Knicks we’ve come to know.

So if word eventually gets to Perry that Leonard’s interest in the team is real, and if Irving decides that he wants to take up residence in his backyard to try to succeed where Patrick Ewing, Stephon Marbury and Patrick Ewing fell short, Perry’s response should be simple.

“Prove it.”

Either would look great in a Knicks uniform, but they’d look much better in a Knicks uniform in 2019.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Four International Prospects Worth Stashing

While much of the international buzz has fallen on Luka Dončić, there are four other overseas prospects worth keeping your eye on.

Ben Nadeau

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Image courtesty of eurohoops.net

Without fail, mock drafts come and go all spring with little mention of potential international draftees. It makes perfect sense. Not every overseas athlete can get the buzz of Real Madrid’s Luka Dončić — or, in most cases, even that of Élie Okobo and Džanan Musa, two international prospects with decent chances of going in the first round next week. Still, would it surprise you to know that seven international draftees were taken in the second round in 2017? Or that 2016 went one better and reached eight? In fact, 2015 saw 10 foreign-born prospects get selected after pick No. 30 — so this is a trend, not an aberration.

Granted, a handful of those draftees haven’t and will not ever play meaningful NBA minutes — but the point still very much stands. However, outside of those aforementioned three — Dončić, Okobo and Musa — even the most-educated of fans would be hard-pressed to rattle off four more transatlantic options. Luckily, Basketball Insiders has your back. Memorize these easily-digestible profiles to impress your friends and family during the NBA Draft — you can thank us later.

Additionally, three of these four players were recently ranked in Basketball Insiders’ latest 60-pick mock draft. For more insight, check out our consensus mock drafts here as well.

Isaac Bonga, Germany — Fraport Skyliners
Age: 18 — Height: 6-foot-9 — Position: SG/SF
Last Mock Rank: No. 39 to Philadelphia

By most accounts, Bonga will be drafted next week — so, admittedly, he’s not the deepest cut on this list. But if the German isn’t on many casual radars just yet, he should be soon enough. His statistics are hardly remarkable — Bonga averaged just six points, three rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in 2017-18 — but his physical measurements project him as a difference-maker. Standing at 6-foot-9, the 18-year-old talent has some legitimate playmaking abilities already. Of course, overseas highlight reels have proven to be misleading time and time again — but watch this timestamped move from last summer’s FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup and try not to get too excited.

Comparing Bonga to other size-aided court generals is weak at best, but he also boasts a seven-foot wingspan, shoots 92.1 percent from the free throw line and his on-court vision is noteworthy for a teenager. Bonga’s best individual performance of the season came against Eisbären Bremerhaven, where he notched 16 points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks on 2-for-2 from three-point range. Given his current stature, he won’t be limited to just defending one or two positions if he bulks up over the next couple years either. There’s no guarantee that Bonga will make it professionally in America, but there are some compelling reasons to take a wait-and-see approach with this capable youngster.

Rodions Kurucs, Latvia — FC Barcelona
Age: 20 Height: 6-foot-9 Position: SF
Last Mock Rank: No. 37 to Sacramento

Originally, Kurucs had considered coming over last season after scoring 9.5 points per game for FC Barcelona II. Although raw, the then-19-year-old was a projected late first-rounder for much of the workout process — but he ultimately opted to head back to Spain for another year. In 2017-18, his counting statistics improved nominally, but he finally spent time with FC Barcelona, one of Europe’s top clubs. Unfortunately, that’s also where things begin to get a bit tricky.

Between his allegedly expensive buyout and Barcelona freely swapping Kurucs between their two clubs to keep him away from visiting scouts, the Latvian is now widely seen as a second-round pick across the board. He had until June 11 to withdraw his name, but — perhaps knowing that things will forever remain difficult in Spain — is just going to make the most of a bad situation. Even with his up-and-downs, Kurucs is often a crafty scorer that can go both inside and outside with the ball.

Although Kurucs has two-way potential, make no mistake, the offense is the prospect’s bread and butter. As we’ve learned in recent years, the NBA will always find room for deadeye shooters and that’s what Kurucs may eventually bring to the table. The talent is here for Kurucs but his long-term NBA future likely depends on which franchise he lands with.

Issuf Sanon, Ukraine — Petrol Olimpija
Age: 18 — Height: 6-foot-3 — Position: G
Last Mock Rank: No. 57 to Oklahoma City

Qualifying as one of the more under the radar options, Sanon is a Ukrainian baller currently playing for Petrol Olimpija in Slovenia. In 2017-18, Sanon averaged six points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals over 20.2 minutes per game and presently projects as a combo guard. Although his professional moments have offered glimpses of an NBA-worthy path, Sanon made his biggest mark last summer at the FIBA U18 European Championship. In what would become his breakout tournament, Sanon averaged 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists over seven games.

During a slim two-point defeat to Turkey in the Round of 16, Sanon tallied 27 points, five rebounds, four assists, three steals and made three of his five attempts from deep. He’ll need to continue developing at the three-point line — he shot just 29.3 percent this season — but Sanon looks like he could be a viable 3-and-D candidate down the road. That said, like many international second-rounders, it’s unlikely that Sanon will come over for a few years at least. But if he keeps developing at this rate, drafting and stashing Sanon would be a shrewd move for any franchise.

Arnoldas Kulboka, Lithuania — Capo d’Orlando
Age: 20 — Height: 6-foot-9 — Position: F
Last Mock Rank: Unranked

Last but not least, there’s Arnoldas Kulboka — a long-ranged assassin with the numbers to back it up. In 2017-18, Kulboka went on loan to Capo d’Orlando of Serie A, a club with which he quickly found success. He was even named Best Young Player in the Basketball Champions League, a new, FIBA-led, European-wide competition. At the 2017 U19 Basketball World Cup, Kulboka averaged 13.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and two assists over seven games. As an athletic, microwavable shooter, Kulboka naturally goes through bouts of inconsistency — but when he’s on, the Lithuanian appears like a tremendous prospect. In the tournament opener against Germany, Kulboka dropped 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists on 5-for-8 from downtown. What else could you want?

On the flip side, during Lithuania’s quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Italy, Kulboka scored just five points on 1-for-15 shooting — so there’s certainly still room to improve. Given his NBA-ready range and his perfect fit in a modern offensive system, those facets alone make Kulboka worth considering. Regardless, success at the international level from an early age is not always an indicator of future achievements, that much should be obvious. But for a mid-to-late second rounder, franchises could do far worse than stashing Kulboka.

While there’s no promise that everybody on this list will even join the NBA someday, they’ve all proved that their names should be known heading into draft week. From former FIBA standouts to those with positionless potential, these four overseas standouts could be difference-makers in the forthcoming years.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Kawhi Leonard Sweepstakes is On

Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants out of San Antonio, which means plenty of teams will look to make competitive bids. Shane Rhodes breaks down the situation.

Shane Rhodes

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Kawhi Leonard wants out.

Frustrated with the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard is forcing their hand. And, in an offseason already flush with available talent, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year has just penciled himself near the top of every team’s shopping list.

As the Spurs move forward, they will have a bevy of suitors to consider. Which teams can offer them the best package for their two-way superstar?

Los Angeles Lakers

Kawhi Leonard is reportedly interested in heading to Los Angeles, according to Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Whether they involve Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma or some combination of the three, the Los Angeles Lakers have a stable of quality, high-upside talent to provide in any trade scenario. The Spurs could take them in an effort to accelerate a mini-rebuild while trying to maximize Head Coach Gregg Popovich and retain relevancy in the Western Conference.

Leonard, more so than the aforementioned kids, provides a huge incentive for the likes of LeBron James and Paul George to consider donning the purple and gold next season as well. If the ultimate goal is a super-trio of James, George and Kawhi, the Lakers almost have to make a play for him.

While the Spurs won’t want to help any other team improve, especially one in-conference, they may not get a better offer if Leonard has his heart set on the Lakers come 2019.

Los Angeles Clippers

Like the Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers also hold Leonard’s attention according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. They don’t have the glitz, glamor and high-upside talent of their Los Angeles contemporaries, but the Clippers present an interesting trade partner with the combination of veterans and draft capital that they possess.

The Clippers hold Nos. 12 and 13 overall in next week’s NBA Draft. While those two picks alone likely aren’t enough, pairing them alongside potential on-the-block veterans — Tobias Harris, DeAndre Jordan, Danilo Gallinari and others — could put the Clippers in the conversation. And, while it is unknown if Leonard’s camp will assure teams of him re-signing long-term, the Clippers have one of the best executives in the league, Jerry West, to hang their hat on in negotiations.

For the Spurs, acquiring the 12th and 13th overall picks allows them to quickly add talent through the draft (whether they choose to use the picks or package them to move up) while the veterans allow them to remain competitive in the brutal Western Conference.

Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics don’t need to trade for Kawhi Leonard. The team that found themselves minutes from the NBA Finals without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward playing a single minute in the postseason will, health permitting, be a bonafide contender next season and for the foreseeable future.

Still, Danny Ainge and Co. have shown that, if they have the means to improve their team, they will do so, regardless of the risk.

Again, the Celtics don’t necessarily need Leonard to compete for a title. However, they are in a unique position; not only do the Celtics have the assets to acquire Leonard but have the ability to make the BEST offer for the superstar wing, should they be so inclined. A combination of high-upside draft capital and ascending players — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and others — on cheap, rookie contracts would certainly be appealing to San Antonio. Plus, shipping Leonard to Boston gets him out of the Western Conference, another benefit for the Spurs.

While it may hurt Boston fans to see the likes of Tatum and Brown leave town, a potential foursome of Irving, Hayward, Leonard and Al Horford could be devastating as well and, perhaps, even the answer to the Golden State Warriors’ Hamptons 5.

Philadelphia 76ers

While the Philadelphia 76ers could certainly use a General Manager right about now, having Head Coach and former San Antonio assistant Brett Brown running the show in the interim isn’t the worst thing in the world.

The 76ers have been connected to James and George since their elimination from the postseason, but Leonard may be a better fit than both. Leonard is a superior defender to George and, unlike James, affords Ben Simmons the opportunity to remain the primary ball handler on offense.

Philadelphia, like Boston, also has the added benefit of residing in the Eastern Conference.

After the departure of Bryan Colangelo and a strange rookie season, the 76ers could be willing to part with Markelle Fultz in addition to other players or picks in order to add a player of Leonard’s caliber as well. If anyone could remedy what ailed the former No. 1 Overall Pick’s shot, it would be the Spurs own Chip Engelland, one of the best shooting coaches in the NBA.

Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns have been stuck in a perpetual rebuild for quite some time. While they have the assets to get a deal done, would they be willing to dangle the No. 1 overall pick for Leonard?

Perhaps.

Back in May, Phoenix GM Ryan McDonough told Wojnarowski that the Suns were “open” to moving the No. 1 pick and that there were “a few players” that the team would consider trading the pick for. While the team has since come out and said that they will likely keep the pick, anything can happen in the NBA and a proven commodity like Leonard doesn’t become available all too often.

This scenario can be a win-win for both teams. The Suns add a Most Valuable Player candidate to their roster alongside budding star Devin Booker and high-upside swingman Josh Jackson. Meanwhile, San Antonio has the chance to bring in a new franchise player in addition to anyone else the Suns send their way — Marquiss Chriss, Dragan Bender, etc.

The 2018 Offseason had already planned to be an eventful one. Now, with the Leonard-Lottery in full swing, it has the potential to change the NBA landscape.

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