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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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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor

James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor

Lang Greene

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The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.

But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.

All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.

The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.

While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.

Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.

“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.

When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”

Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.

“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”

Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.

In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.

The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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NBA Daily: Rich Cho Out As Charlotte Hornets GM

The Charlotte Hornets opted to not move forward with GM Rich Cho and are expected to pursue former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

Buddy Grizzard

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The fateful moment for Rich Cho came days after he was hired as GM of the Charlotte Hornets in June of 2011. With the NBA Draft coming just nine days later, Cho started work on a three-team trade that would land Charlotte a second top-10 pick to pair with its own ninth pick, which was used to draft franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker.

In that draft, Klay Thompson went 11th to the Golden State Warriors and Kawhi Leonard 15th to the Pacers. Of the 17 players selected after Bismack Biyombo, who went to the Hornets with the seventh pick, 12 are regular contributors on current NBA rosters. The Orlando Magic are currently outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on court, a rotation-worst.

Today, Hornets owner Michael Jordan announced that Cho is out as Charlotte’s GM.

“Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization,” said Jordan in a press release. “We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”

While the failure to obtain Thompson, Leonard or any of the numerous impact players in the 2011 draft will always mar Cho’s record, falling to the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft will continue to haunt Charlotte. Despite a brutal 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which set the record for lowest win percentage in an NBA season (.110), the New Orleans Pelicans won the right to the first overall pick and selected Anthony Davis.

The Hornets selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick. Although the 2012 Draft wasn’t nearly as deep as 2011’s, the Hornets still left players like Bradley Beal (third) and Andre Drummond (ninth) on the board. Either would have been an outstanding compliment to Walker, who remains with the team despite rumors of his availability leading up the the trade deadline.

“I feel like I’m going to be in Charlotte,” said Walker at his All-Star media availability. “So that’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m playing. So I never really sat and thought about any other teams.”

Walker made his second All-Star appearance after Kristaps Porzingis suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

“I wish K.P. hadn’t gotten hurt,” said Walker. “Everybody hates to see guys go down, especially great players like him. But when I was able to get the call to replace him, it was a really good feeling.”

Another fateful moment in Cho’s tenure came during the 2015 NBA Draft. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Boston Celtics offered the 15th and 16th picks, a future protected first rounder from the Brooklyn Nets and a future first from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves in exchange for the ninth pick, which Cho used to draft Frank Kaminsky.

“If it was such a no-brainer for us, why would another team want to do it,” Cho asked rhetorically in defense of the Kaminsky selection, according to Lowe.

Years later, it’s evident that the Celtics dodged a bullet when both Charlotte and the Miami HEAT rebuffed its attempts to move up and draft Justise Winslow. The latter has not panned out while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the players Boston subsequently obtained with Brooklyn’s picks, have developed into starters.

Chris Mannix of Yahoo! Sports reported in the first week of February that Charlotte may target former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for a high-ranking role in the organization. Kupchak, like Jordan, is a former UNC star. Kupchak would join Jordan’s UNC teammate and Charlotte assistant GM Buzz Peterson.

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