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The Coronation of King James

After bringing a title to Cleveland, LeBron James is carrying considerably less weight on his shoulders these days.

Tommy Beer

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Last night, just a few hours after the Cavaliers hoisted their 2016 championship banner to the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena, the Indians won Game 1 of the World Series across the street at Progressive Field. For the first time in a long time, it’s good to be a Cleveland sports fan.

It’s also good to be King James.

For the first time in a long time, LeBron James embarks on the start of a basketball season without the weight of the world on his shoulders. By winning his third ring in jaw-dropping fashion and, most importantly, ending Cleveland’s title drought as he promised, James is at the point where he’ll simply be adding to his already-amazing legacy going forward.

No player of this generation, in any professional sports league, has been more heavily scrutinized over the course of his entire career than LeBron James. He was arguably the most hyped high school basketball player of all-time before being drafted with the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft by his hometown Cavaliers. The expectations were extraordinary. When he failed to deliver a championship during his first seven seasons in Cleveland, the pressure mounted substantially each year. Then came his move to Miami.

The decision to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was understandable, considering he seemed to be judged only by the number of rings he won regardless of how terrific his individual play was. “The Decision” on ESPN was foolish and indefensible. At that point, the majority of his hometown fans hated him. Remnants of burnt No. 23 wine and gold jerseys could be found throughout northeast Ohio for days. The unmistakably heavy feeling of unrequited love hung over Akron and Cleveland far longer. In addition, all of the fans in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles hated LeBron for spurning their cities when he hit free agency. The vitriol directed toward him on social media and message boards was unprecedented. The memes were relentless.

For a multitude of reasons, LeBron not only bore the weight of exceedingly high expectations, he also had to try to embrace the role of villain. He did his best to be brutish and boisterous, but LeBron is a lovable family man and never seemed comfortable impersonating the “bad guy.”

After flopping in the Finals in 2010, James finally got the monkey off his back in 2011, winning his first NBA championship. The HEAT went back-to-back the following season, but outside of South Beach, the rest of the NBA community never fully embraced LeBron and The Big Three. Fans found reasons to criticize him, downplaying his stats and arguing that his achievements weren’t that impressive since he had help from a talented supporting cast.

Winning “only” two championships wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy the weary and irritated skeptics – especially after LeBron himself had promised “not one, not two, not three, not four…”

After losing again in the 2014 Finals, this time to the Spurs, James shocked the world when he packed up the weight of those unmet expectations and headed back home to Ohio. He voluntarily doubled-down on the all-consuming pressure. He had to shoulder both the heft of his own individual goals, and the hopes and dreams of a city desperate to shed the “loser” label.

In his first season back, he dragged a depleted Cavs team to the Finals before being squashed by the brash, upstart Warriors. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be?

Then a funny, unexpected thing happened. The Warriors reeled off an incredible 73 wins during the 2015-16 regular season, and became overwhelming favorites to capture their second straight title. Once beloved, the Warriors’ confidence (or cockiness, some argued) started to rub many the wrong way. Steph Curry would strut back down the floor after yet another remarkable three-pointer – sometimes turning his back to the basket and celebrating while the ball was still in mid-air. Draymond Green often brashly bullied lesser opponents. Owner Joe Lacob proclaimed that his team was “light years” ahead of the rest of the league and would dominate for years to come.

All of a sudden, James and his band of mere mortal teammates were viewed as the underdogs. This was particularly true after the Cavaliers fell behind 3-1 in the Finals against Golden State. The odds seemed insurmountable. Curry (the first unanimous MVP in NBA history) and his Warriors, the best regular season team of all-time, had a two-game lead with two of the final three contests in Golden State.

Many NBA fans without a dog in the fight surprisingly found themselves rooting for the once-hated LeBron. Setting aside past feelings for a few days, folks were able to watch James play the game without the same level of enmity that may have previously clouded their view of him.

After being forced to play “Goliath” year after year after year, Lebron got to try the “David” costume on for size. It was a great fit. And LeBron played as close to perfect as humanly possible, catapulting the Cavs past the mighty Warriors.

That three-game stretch to close out the 2016 NBA Finals may go down as arguably the greatest individual performance in NBA history. That’s not hyperbole.

Consider this: Over those three games (Games 5, 6 and 7), LeBron averaged 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, three blocks and three steals.

To help put those numbers in perspective:

  • In the final three games of the 2016 Finals, James dished out more assists (29) than Curry had in the entire seven-game series (26).
  • In those final three games, James scored more points (109) than Draymond Green scored in the entire seven-game series (99).
  • LeBron grabbed 35 rebounds in those final three games. Klay Thompson grabbed a total of 21 rebounds in the entire series.
  • LeBron also had nine blocks and nine steals in those final three games. Curry finished the series with a total of six steals and three blocks, while Thompson totaled seven steals and four blocks.

Of course, it wasn’t just those three games in which LeBron unequivocally proved he’s the best player on the planet. Over the 13 NBA Finals games played between the Cavs and Warriors in 2015 and 2016, James led all players in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Below are the respective ranks, with first- and second-place finishers:

Points:  

1. LeBron James: 423 points
2. Steph Curry: 314 points

Rebounds:

1. LeBron James: 159 rebounds
2. Tristan Thompson: 149 rebounds

Assists:    

1. LeBron James: 115 assists
2. Draymond Green: 68 assists

Blocks:    

1. LeBron James: 19 blocks
2. Andrew Bogut: 15 blocks

Steals:

1. LeBron James: 26 steals
2. Draymond Green: 23 steals

Circling back to Tuesday night, James exhaled as he was able to watch Cleveland rejoice; they finally witnessed a championship banner being raised in their building.

LeBron seemed to be emotionally and joyously overwhelmed. Then, the game started and he dominated. He recorded a triple-double, leading the Cavs to an 117-88 dismantling of the Knicks.

However, quite interestingly, the ring ceremony and subsequent Cavs victory are little more than an afterthought in the sports world the day after. In fact, it wasn’t even the lead sports story in Cleveland. Images from the Indians’ Game 1 win graced the front cover of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Wednesday.

It wasn’t even the most-discussed NBA game from opening night, as that was the Spurs’ rout of the Warriors.

For the first time in a long time, James is not the epicenter of the NBA universe. Love him or hate him, LeBron generated the most buzz, most clicks, and most debate this decade. However, Kevin Durant joining the Warriors to form a superteam has been the talk of the NBA since July 4. It will likely continue to dominate coverage of the league until the middle of June.

One gets the sense that is perfectly fine with LeBron. He’s been subjected to unimaginably intense pressure and attention since his sophomore year in high school. Somehow, he found a way to live up to the incomparable hype by winning four MVPs and multiple championships. But last season, by bringing the Larry O’Brien trophy home to Cleveland, he accomplished his greatest achievement.

It’s safe to assume LeBron enters the 2016-17 campaign feeling more confident and carefree than ever before. That’s not to say he won’t be motivated. LeBron himself admitted he’s chasing the uncatchable ghost of Michael Jordan. Still, if he seems just a bit quicker on the floor this season, or appears to be moving with greater ease and joy off the court, it’s probably because he’s currently carrying considerably less weight on his shoulders nowadays.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, currently 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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