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NBA Saturday: LeBron James Is Still The NBA’s King

Despite emerging contenders, the NBA still belongs to LeBron James, writes Dennis Chambers.

Dennis Chambers

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After defeating the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 6 on Thursday night to secure a first round series victory, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich voiced his take on a growing opinion.

“Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now,” Popovich said in the post-game press conference. “He’s the best two-way player and does it all with such class. It’s impressive.”

It’s human nature to get bored of the same old repetition, and phrases like “out with the old, in with the new” remind us how society has a knack for always looking to find the next big thing.

But, continuing to wish away the dominance of LeBron James needs to stop, now.

On the heels of completing his 14th season, James statistically had one of his best campaigns in years — if not ever. Scoring wise, James’ 26.4 points per game were the most since 2013-14, his last year in Miami. His efficiency was up as well, shooting 54.8 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range, James sank shots at his best rate in three seasons. Not to mention he averaged career-highs — yes, in year 14 — in both assists and rebounds, with 8.7 and 8.6 per game, respectively.

Over the course of his career, James has always battled with the criticism from the peanut gallery. From being unable to win a championship to leaving Cleveland, to not being clutch, so on and so forth, the conversation around James has always been quicker to attack than to defend.

Last season unanimous Most Valuable Player and leader of the 73-win Golden State Warriors, Stephen Curry, was being crowned the new king of the NBA. That is until Curry and the Warriors blew a 3-1 Finals lead to James and the Cavaliers behind a mythological-like three-game stretch from The King.

This season, the same talk has continued, just with different names. Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo rise to stardom has prompted the conversation that he may now be in the mix to take James’ throne. Russell Westbrook, posting the NBA’s first triple-double season average since 1961-62, threw his hat into the ring for “best player in the league.” And, of course, Leonard’s ability to dominate on both sides of the ball keeps his name in the mouths of people across the basketball community landscape — from Popovich to Skip Bayless — about being the man that has finally taken a step past James.

For a player who has made it to six straight NBA Finals, advanced past the first round of the playoffs all 12 times he’s been there and just led the Cavaliers to a 4-0 sweep of the Indiana Pacers in a series that saw him average a near 30-point triple-double, the narrative that James is slowing down feels more like impatience and boredom waiting for his sustained greatness to end.

While James’ unwillingness to truly relinquish the title of “best player in the NBA” lingers around for perhaps a few more seasons, that doesn’t discount the nominations of players like Antetokounmpo and Leonard from ever claiming that title as their own.

At just 22 years old, Antetokounmpo took the Toronto Raptors to six games, averaging 24.8 points and 9.7 rebounds in the process. Leonard, 25, already with an NBA title and Finals MVP to his name, is headed to the Western Conference semifinals after averaging 31.2 points, six rebounds, and two steals in the Spurs’ opening-round series.

James himself even recognizes the ability that a guy like Leonard possesses, saying before this season started that Leonard was the player who guards him the best. But, if you ask Leonard himself, he isn’t worried about being the “best” anything besides a team.

But that doesn’t change or impact the narrative floating around the notion that James’ days as the NBA’s top dog are over. There will still be those individuals, biased or not, that will continue to not give James his due.

Both of these players are world-class caliber in terms of talent, and almost certainly project to play out long dominant careers, but there’s still a 6-foot-9 250-pound road block in the way.

Throughout his playoff career, James has averaged 28.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Leonard has never posted those statistics is a singular game. In James’ first playoff run, back in 2005-06 as a 21-year-old, he pulled the Cavaliers through 13 playoff games. That’s more than the 12 playoff games Antetokounmpo has appeared in during his first two playoff runs combined.

At 32 years old, after 14 seasons and nearly 50,000 minutes played, James still was capable of single-handedly orchestrating a 26-point comeback — the largest in NBA playoff history — against the Pacers in Game 3 of their first-round series, registering his 17th career postseason triple-double in the process. James’ 41-point, 13-rebound, 12-assist line had only be reached one other time in NBA playoff history, by none other than himself back in the 2014 NBA Finals.

Just one week later, Leonard notches 29 points, nine rebounds, and four assists on the way to a Spurs win in Game 6. That line prompts Popovich to take his stance that Leonard is the league’s best player, and he achieves his greatness with class.

However, there is just one class reserved for the league’s best player, and with no clear signs of slowing down, James is still the teacher.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA Daily: The HEAT Are Building Character By Necessity

With so many player games lost to injury, the Miami HEAT have had to look within themselves to keep a good season going.

Buddy Grizzard

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The injury situation for the Miami HEAT has gone from bad to worse with point guard Goran Dragic missing the last two games after suffering a bruised knee against the Milwaukee Bucks. The HEAT were able to gut out a 106-105 win in Charlotte Saturday before falling 99-90 to the Rockets in Houston Monday.

HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra said after the win over the Hornets that the test of going deep into the roster to find contributors with so many players out has forced his team to grow.

“We’ve had so many guys in an out, [a] revolving door of injuries,” said Spoelstra. “We’ve been through a tough stretch. But you use these opportunities to test yourself, measure yourself and see if you can develop some competitive character collectively when the chips are down.”

In addition to missing Dragic, the HEAT lost Dion Waiters for the season, likely won’t have Rodney McGruder back until February and are awaiting the return of starting shooting guard Tyler Johnson, who suffered an ankle injury that thankfully wasn’t as bad as it looked initially. Miami is on pace to lose the most games to injury in the NBA for the second season in a row. Spoelstra talked about the role of luck in Charlotte.

“You have to make shots and you have to be lucky,” said Spoelstra. “This league is tough. You need all of it sometimes. You need a great connection, you need good karma, you need to play to your identity and then you need the right breaks.”

One thing that has broken in the HEAT’s favor is the play of shooting guard Wayne Ellington, whom the team has needed more than ever with Waiters and Johnson out. Spoelstra preferred to use Ellington off the bench, but moved him into the starting lineup against the Hornets by necessity. Fortunately, Spoelstra said he never had to worry about Ellington handling whatever is asked.

“Wayne is the true embodiment of pro,” said Spoelstra. “He’s reliable, always early, he’s got a great work ethic, he exudes an incredible positive energy always, whether the game is going well for him or not, whether he’s playing or not.

“I just love the guy. If I would have told him hey, we’re not going to start you and I’m not going to put you in until the middle of the second quarter, he would have looked at me and said, okay, whatever it takes to win.”

While Ellington has slid seemlessly into the starting shooting guard role, covering for Dragic hasn’t been as easy. Against the Hornets, power forward James Johnson and small forward Josh Richardson alternated bringing the ball up and initiating the offense.

Further down the roster, Kelly Olynyk has provided some much-needed offense, but Justise Winslow, whom Johnson singled out as a player that could step up in the absense of others, has continued to struggle. Winslow, who missed 15 games earlier in the season due to a strained knee, shot just 1-for-4 against the Hornets and was frequently matched up against Nicolas Batum, who had a game-high 26 points.

Told that Winslow threw his shooting shirt and towel into the air in frustration after exiting the game late in the fourth quarter, Spoelstra was coy.

“He was probably throwing his jersey to a fan,” said Spoelstra. “He’s just getting back into the mix. He’s fine. He’s a competitor and he wants to be out there and fill in the gaps.”

Despite finishing a five-game road trip, including a stretch of five games in six nights, with a 2-3 record, the HEAT survived to remain the fourth seed in the East with the eighth-best record in the NBA. Only the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors in the East and Warriors, Rockets, Timberwolves and Spurs in the West currently have a better record than Miami. As such, Spoelstra was able to look at the positives after the team finished the road trip with a loss in Houston.

“There’s a lot of good things going on,” said Spoelstra. “Our locker room knows that. We’ve got to get back, get some rest and maybe we’ll get some guys back. If not, get ready for another battle on Thursday night.”

Missing so many bodies, the HEAT have had to rely on the team’s depth and character to excel despite adversity. If Miami can have a little bit of the luck and good karma Spoelstra spoke of, the team will be well-positioned for the stretch run of what has already been a suprisingly-good season.

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NBA Trade Watch: Point Guards

David Yapkowitz looks at five point guards who could be involved in trade deadline activity.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve got a new series dropping this week here at Basketball Insiders. With the trade deadline about two weeks away on Feb. 8, we’re taking a look at some of the players, position by position, most likely to be traded. For our first installment of this series, we’ll identify the point guards who might find themselves moved as the deadline draws near. There are a few point guards that could definitely help some playoff teams in the stretch run that could be dealt. Here’s a look at them.

1. Kemba Walker – $12,000,000

Kemba Walker has played his whole career in Charlotte. For the past few years, he’s been one of the point guards in the league. He’s got career averages of 18.7 points per game and 5.4 assists. This season he’s putting up 21.7 points and 5.8 assists. In many ways, he’s the engine that makes the Hornets go. He’s been their franchise player since arriving in Charlotte.

The Hornets just haven’t been that good of a team. Since their inception as the expansion Bobcats in 2004, they’ve made the playoffs three times in the 14 years they’ve been around. Last week, reports surfaced that the Hornets were open to trading Walker. Compared to the contracts given out since the increase in the NBA’s salary cap, Walker’s contract is a steal. He’s an All-Star level player who can certainly push a team that much closer to the promised land. For any team on the verge of playoff success, it’s a good idea to kick the tires on what it would take to land Walker.

2. George Hill – $20,000,000

When the Sacramento Kings landed George Hill in the offseason, it was considered quite a success. He was one of the most coveted free agent point guards on the market. It was assumed that he’d come in and start right away while being a mentor to De’Aaron Fox. However, the futility of Sacramento’s season seems to have got to him a bit as he voiced his frustrations earlier this month.

Despite that, he’s still having a relatively productive season. His scoring is down a bit from recent seasons at 10.5 points per game, but he’s shooting well. He’s at 46.1 percent from the field, and 45.2 percent from three-point range. His contract is rather large, perhaps making him a little more difficult to move, but for one of the better two-way point guards in the league, he’ll probably have a few suitors. Recent reports have mentioned the Cleveland Cavaliers as being interested, where he could either come off the bench or slide over into the starting shooting guard spot. In any case, he’d bring them a much-needed defensive presence.

3. Emmanuel Mudiay – $3,381,480

When he first came into the league in 2015, Mudiay looked like one of the Denver Nugget’s brightest young stars. He played in 68 games, starting 66 of them, and 12.8 points per game, 5.5 assists, 3.4 rebounds. Since then, however, he’s struggled a bit and at this point, he’s lost his spot in the rotation to Jamal Murray.

This month alone, he’s played in only four of the Nuggets ten games. His name’s been mentioned often in trade rumors, and perhaps this is deadline where he finally gets moved. It’s still only his third year in the league and he’s only 21 years old. It’s not farfetched at all to think that he’s got his best years ahead of him. Like many players before him, all he may need is a fresh start and someone to give him a chance. For any team looking to take a flyer on a player that is a high-reward, low-risk kind of guy, Mudiay is a name worth inquiring about.

4. Devin Harris – $4,402,546

Devin Harris isn’t a name that’s appeared in trade chatter such as the other guys on this list, but he’s a guy that’s worth inquiring about. With the situation in Dallas very apparent in regards to the direction of the team, Harris is kind of an odd man out. Dennis Smith Jr. is clearly the future at point guard for the Mavericks. They also have a younger, cheaper option as a backup with Yogi Ferrell. He’s actually been a part of the rotation, but if the Mavericks get decent offers for him, they should strongly consider moving him.

For a guy who’s been around the league for 14 years now, he’s having a pretty decent season; 8.4 points per game off the bench is solid. He’s also shooting 35.1 percent from the three-point line. He’s not going to be the double-digit scorer he once was, but he can still help a team. He’s on the last year of his contract, too, so if a team trades for him and it doesn’t work out, they can cut their losses at the end of the season. For any team looking for a veteran backup to help them in the playoffs, Harris is a player they should give the Mavericks a call about.

5. J.J. Barea – $3,903,900

Harris’ teammate in Dallas, J.J. Barea is only a year younger and shouldn’t figure into the Mavericks’ future plans either. As an undrafted player out of Northeastern in 2006, Barea has enjoyed a successful NBA career, one that saw him win a ring with the Mavericks in 2011. At age 33, he remains a solid veteran backup, one that could play a big role on a playoff contender.

For someone on the backend of his NBA career, Barea has actually turned in career seasons the past few years including this one. He’s putting up 11.8 points per game this year, the most since leaving initially leaving Dallas for Minnesota in 2011. He’s dishing out 6.0 assists and pulling down 3.1 rebounds, both career-highs, while shooting 37.5 percent from the three-point line. He’s played in all but one of Dallas’ 45 games at 23.0 minutes per. He’s got one more year on his contract after this one, and even then it’s a relative bargain. His name hasn’t come up either in trade rumors, but like his teammate Harris, he’s definitely worth calling about for a playoff team needed veteran point guard help.

Sometimes trade rumors are just that — rumors. It’s common for many of the deals rumored and leaked to fall through and never materialize once the deadline hits. But every so often, some big deals do happen. Most of the guys on this list are not “big names” so to speak, but they are certainly capable of contributing to a playoff team for the stretch run. Be sure to check us out tomorrow as our series continues with the shooting guards most likely to be traded. And make sure to follow us at Basketball Insiders for all your latest trade news and rumors as we get closer to the deadline.

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NBA Daily: Things Are Getting Interesting On The NBA Trade Front

Some big names have hit the rumor mill, that’s typically the fuel that starts the Trade Deadline fire.

Steve Kyler

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Things Are Getting Interesting

With the February 8 NBA Trade Deadline getting closer, some bigger name NBA players have started to surface, which tends to fuel the fire of trade rumors. While league sources think its unlikely any of the named guys get moved, there are some things to know about each situation.

Jordan Talks Kemba Walker

In an exclusive interview with the Charlotte Observers’ Rick Bonnell, Hornets majority owner Michael Jordan tried to set the record straight on where his club was with star guard Kemba Walker.

“I’m not looking to trade Kemba, but I would listen to opportunities,” Jordan told Bonnell.

“There have been teams asking about players. Also, we’ve been asking about players. We ask teams who they like on our roster, and they always say Kemba.”

Jordan tried his best to defuse the notion that the Hornets were actively considering trade for Walker. The jist of his stance is that anything sort of a proven All-Star wouldn’t get much attention. However, there is a growing sense that if the Hornets could find a way to pry Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard out of San Antonio, they pull the trigger.

League sources that have engaged the Hornets on Walker scenarios said they believed the Hornets’ stance was more fact-finding and option gathering than anything serious; they also doubted that Charlotte would do anything with Walker based on their conversations.

The running narrative in NBA circles is that any deal involving Walker would also have to clear out a bloated contract while returning a fairly high-level draft pick.

The likely outcome of the Walker situation in Charlotte is the team will try to engage Walker on a contract extension this offseason, and if they can not reach a long-term deal, they would look to move him around the 2018 NBA Draft.

Walker becomes extension-eligible after this season. Involving him and his agent in the trade process could yield a lot more value to Charlotte if Walker ends up being traded somewhere he’d agree to an extension or a new deal. That is a factor in what teams are said to be willing to offer for him at the deadline.

Damian Lillard Wants Answers

According to Chris Haynes of ESPN, Portland star Damian Lillard requested to meet privately with Blazers owner Paul Allen, seeking some answers from ownership on the direction of the team.

In a meeting that took place without anyone in the organization’s knowledge, Lillard is said to have re-committed to remaining in Portland but wanted answers and assurances from ownership that becoming a title contender was the goal in the near term.

There had been growing concerns in Portland that Lillard, who has pledged loyalty to Portland at every turn, might be souring on the situation.

League sources said recently that Allen had taken a much more hands-on approach to many things around the Blazers, including having his top-level staffers gauge the league’s opinion on not only the job team president Neil Olshey was doing, but that of head coach Terry Stotts.

Olshey received a multi-year contract extension in late August of 2017 that is to carry him through the 2020-21 season. Stotts is also signed through the 2020 season.

The Blazers have run off a nice stretch of games, winning six of their last ten, but continue to linger in the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture.

With Lillard facing what could be another All-Star snub, there is a growing sense that Lillard and his camp are pushing for some aggressive changes to try and jump start what’s become a ho-hum team.

The Blazers have been one of the more aggressive suitors for Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan. However, the Clippers continue to say they haven’t been offered anything they’d consider doing.

Kawhi Leonard And The Spurs

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski’s dropped a doozy this week suggesting that the San Antonio Spurs and All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard are growing increasingly distant over his lingering hip injury.

The short version here is that the Spurs are growing frustrated with Leonard’s inability to get right, almost as much as Leonard is frustrated with not being able to get right.

League sources said their calls on Leonard were shut down before they started, so it’s not likely that San Antonio is ready to do anything drastic with Leonard.

Spurs GM RC Buford told ESPN that there was “no issue between the Spurs organization and Kawhi.” However, whenever there is talk of unrest in the NBA, it brings the sharks out.

The Charlotte Hornets are rumored to have tried to engage on a Leonard deal built around Kemba Walker, which is where many believe the Walker rumors started.

Evan Fournier Likely The Guy

The Orlando Magic have been around the proverbial block with most of their roster according to league sources. The story surrounding the Magic is that virtually anything on the roster could be had in trade and that the Magic really are not seeking a ton in return.

The overarching theme from other teams is that the Magic are looking to shed salary and get out of players that do not fit the direction team leadership wants to take the team. Equally, the Magic are not overly interested in additional draft picks, understanding too much youth can and likely would slow down progress.

The ideal package seems to be some combination of ending contracts and players on rookie scale deals that are a little further along.

No one in Orlando likes the term fire sale, mainly because the Magic don’t seem to have a ton of urgency in blowing the team up at the deadline.

The general belief from most is that if Orlando can’t find the kind of deals they are looking for, they’ll simply run out the clock on this season and seek a more aggressive rebuild around the draft and in July when teams can absorb contract money into cap space.

The name most teams seem to have eyes on is guard Evan Fournier. There is a belief that of all the players that could get moved Fournier is the most likely. The Magic have also seriously gauged the trade value of point guard Elfrid Payton in advance of his free agency in July.

The Cavs Got Issues

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cleveland Cavaliers had a contentious and brutally honest team meeting before Monday’s practice.

The jist of the report is that no one was spared in what was a brutal assessment of a team that lost seven of their last ten and now find themselves six games out of the top seed in the East.

A big source of frustration seems to be the perception from Cavs players that Kevin Love was not ill and they wanted answers on why he left the locker room early on Saturday. Guard Isaiah Thomas has been a huge source of frustration for a Cavs team that said all the right things about Thomas when he came back from injury but, are growing increasingly frustrated with his poor effort on defense.

The Cavaliers have been aggressive exploring trades trying to dump off veteran players they feel may have become too complacent in Cleveland.

Forward Tristan Thompson and guard Iman Shumpert have been regular names in NBA trade circles for most of the season, with some suggesting that guard J.R. Smith and Thomas could both be packed into a deal if it returned the right upgrade.

With Love in the crosshairs of his teammates, his name will likely start to come up as the Cavaliers try and find their way out of the mess they have become.

Bucks Ramping Up To Shake Things Up

The Milwaukee Bucks opted to shake things up yesterday firing head coach Jason Kidd. The news was somewhat surprising given Kidd’s relationship with Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.

According to Kidd, who spoke with ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Antetokounmpo was the one who told Kidd about the decision and offered to call ownership on his behalf. The Bucks have involved Antetokounmpo on almost everything, hoping to keep his buy-in on the team.

The Bucks are also ramping up efforts to trigger a significant trade, with eyes not only on Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan, but possibly Miami’s Hassan Whiteside.

The Bucks have been dangling big man John Henson and several of their rookie scale players under the guise of a willingness to take on unwanted salary.

League sources said the Bucks are weighing where they are with injured guard Jabari Parker, who continues to shuttle back and forth between the Bucks and their G-League team the Herd for practice time.

Parker is set to hit free agency in July, and there is a sense that he could get very expensive. It’s not out of the question that Parker becomes the jewel of a trade if it returns the right combination of proven players and future assets.

One thing is becoming very clear. The Bucks understand the urgency of proving they can compete and they want Antetokounmpo on board with the plan.

As the trade deadline approaches Basketball Insiders will start to drop position Trade Watch feature, starting with the point guard today and shooting guards tomorrow. If you want to know who could be had, make sure to swing by early and often all week as we map out who to watch at every position.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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